When and How to Say No to Freelance Work

Do you feel pressured to say yes to every job? Are you feeling drained by projects that just aren’t right for you? When you’re a freelancer, there are no automatic paychecks so it can be hard to turn down work. But taking on every opportunity that comes your way can lead to burnout, loss of motivation, and unhappy clients.

While refusing work can be scary, it’s an important skill to master. In this post, we’ll cover when and how to say no to a job when you’re a freelancer.

Signs that you should turn down a freelance job

Sometimes you’re better off saying “Thanks, but no thanks,” even if something looks like a good opportunity. This goes for projects from new clients and your existing customers. You might want to decline freelance work if:

  1. You’re not excited about the work. This is a biggie and something I’ve struggled with. If you take on every project that turns up, you won’t be available when your dream opportunity comes around. Being picky about the work you take on (providing you can pay your bills) can make you a happier, more fulfilled, and higher-earning freelancer in the future.
  1. You don’t have time. When you’re self-employed, there’s no incentive to stop working at 5pm. But this can and will lead to burnout for most people. Remember why you started freelancing in the first place—freedom to work flexible hours, more time to spend with your kids, creating the job you want—and don’t overbook yourself. Aside from billable hours, you need time for things like admin, invoicing and promoting your business too. You can offer a client a place on your waiting list or let them know when your next availability is but if they’re not prepared to wait, why not refer them to another freelancer in your network?
  2. It’s not your area of expertise. We can’t all be good at everything. And while there’s a lot to be said for learning as you go and reaching outside your comfort zone, it’s okay to turn down work that you just don’t feel confident with. The last thing you want to commit to work you can’t deliver. Be open and honest with your clients, refer a friend or draft in another freelancer with the right expertise to help.
  3. You and the client don’t click. You don’t have to be best friends with every client, but you do want to make sure you can work together smoothly. If they have a very different philosophy, work style, or personality, you’re probably not going to enjoy working with them (and vice versa). If the client shows signs of boundary problems or other red flags (see below), it’s probably best to pass, even if it’s a good opportunity otherwise.

Being picky about the work you take on can make you a happier, more fulfilled, and higher-earning freelancer in the future.

Client red flags: 9 warning signs to look out for

What are some signs that you’re dealing with a “bad” client? I looked back on my own freelance career so far and asked some others in my network what red flags would make them think twice about taking on a project. Do any of these sound familiar?

  1. They’re negative about others they’ve worked with. Talking badly about your colleagues, competitors, customers, or staff is never a good choice—it shows that you’re unprofessional and not a nice person to deal with. If a potential client skips straight to bad-mouthing their previous freelancer, it’s likely that they were a part of the problem. In this situation, I always ask the client to share the work that they were unhappy with and specify what they didn’t like about it. If they can’t give a straight answer, they probably don’t have a clear idea of what they want or need, making them impossible to please.
  1. They’ve pushed back on your rates. Freelancing is your livelihood, not your hobby. You’re responsible for setting your rates, giving yourself a raise, and setting clear expectations around pricing from the start—so you don’t waste prospective clients’ time or your own. Even if you quote prices per project, add a price range for your services (like “$500 – $700” or “From $950.00”) to your website’s pricing page to help filter out clients who aren’t a budget-match. I recommend asking clients what their budget is or giving them a “ballpark figure” before you spend time on a call with them. If a current client isn’t willing or able to accommodate your most recent price increase, it might be a sign that you’re no longer a fit. Learn more about how to set your rates and how to ask for more money as a freelancer.
  1. They don’t want to sign a contract. Your freelance contract agreement helps you set clear expectations from the start, agree on important things like deadlines, project scope, payments, and price, and protects both parties if things don’t go to plan. Any reasonable client will be happy to sign one, even if they want to negotiate on certain terms. If a client doesn’t want to sign a contract, you have to ask yourself “Why?”
  1. They want a free sample. Sometimes called “spec work,” not every prospect who asks you to complete a test or sample task is bad news, but they’re in the minority. It’s common for scammers to post a “job” on a freelance job board (here are more ways to find freelance work online), receive lots of applications, and ask every freelancer to complete a test or sample task for free. Get 50 freelancers to take the bait? That’s a lot of work they’ve bagged for free. If a client wants to see your style and previous work, point them to your freelance portfolio website or consulting website or reply politely with your rates and availability to complete their sample project. If they still push back, listen to your gut telling you to walk away. Still need to create your site? Check out these freelancer websites that are winning clients for inspiration.
  1. They aren’t organized. Working with unorganized people is especially draining for freelancers because we’re not just managing our own time, but multiple clients and projects too. Waiting for clients to send you information, answer questions or approve work can mess with your schedule and burn up your billable hours. This is why I start my new retainer clients on a short-term agreement, so we can both make sure we’re happy working together before committing to a longer contract. Remember that the client/freelancer relationship is a two-way street and staying with a client who can’t hold up their end will drain your time and energy.

Remember that the client/freelancer relationship is a two-way street and staying with a client who can’t hold up their end will drain your time and energy.

  1. They treat you like an employee—but not in a good way. When you’re a freelancer, you’re no longer just a skilled professional, contractor, or creative—you are a business. You’re not entitled to employee benefits like sick pay, vacation days, or a company health plan, but there are other benefits and freedom. As freelance developer @GraftStudio put it on Twitter, “We work *with* clients. Not *for* them.” This means we choose who we work with, what projects we agree to, and we set our own working hours and deadlines. If a client expects to throw work at you anytime between 9-5 or tries to restrict when you can take time off, it’s time to cut them loose.
  1. They lack boundaries. This client bombards you with phone calls, emails, Slack messages, and (gasp!) even texts, at all hours of the day and night and they expect an instant response. This shows that they have no respect for your time or personal life. It is, however, your responsibility to set boundaries from the start. For example, be clear about your working hours and only reply to messages during set times (I like to deal with emails between 12 noon and 5 pm when my creative energy is slightly lower) or add “working hours” to your email signature so clients know when to expect a response. Otherwise, you’ll spend all day chasing messages and never get any billable work done!
  1. They say, “Can you just—” Jump on a quick call, write this tagline, make us a quick logo—we’ve all heard them. Be wary of any sentence that starts this way, especially if the request comes outside your normal working hours. Again, this shows a lack of respect for your time and your contractor status (ie. you’re not an employee). You can nip this in the bud early by having a separate business phone you can turn off, not replying to emails in evenings or at weekends, and treating all new requests like a new project. Here are some useful responses:
  • “Of course, I’d love to help you out. Let’s schedule a time to chat next week.”
  • “My rate for this type of work is between X-X. Would you like to book it in for ?”
  • “I’m fully booked until X date. If this is urgent, I can recommend .”
  1. They tell you how long things should take. You are the expert in your field and only you know how much work any one task will be. Sure, it’s nice to help out a client in need when you can, especially if they’re a regular, but good clients won’t try to dictate how long something should take or how much you should be charging for freelance work.

Spotted any of these red flags recently? Trust your gut—if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

How to break up with a client without causing a scene

Whether you’re turning down a new client or parting ways with an existing one, here’s how to say “No” diplomatically:

  • Check your emotions. Everyone has them, but negative feelings have no place in your business transactions. Arguing with clients or falling into “he said, she said” will only burn bridges, meaning you can’t work together in future or count on them for a referral. Having a freelance contract in place will help you keep conversations focused on the agreements you have on paper, rather than opinions.
  • Think of you and your business as separate people. “It’s not personal, it’s just business”—this might sound like a Leo-zinger from the Wolf of Wall Street but you need to understand, believe, and embody this if you’re going to have a happy freelance life. Oftentimes, we keep working with clients we like even if the business side doesn’t feel productive anymore. When a breakup is inevitable, I make a point of telling them how much I’ve enjoyed working with them, and why. This way, you go out on a positive note and leave the door open for more work in the future. And hey, it’s nice to be nice.
  • Never apologize for a business decision. Cut the word “sorry” out of your emails—99% of the time it has no business being there! Instead, clearly explain why you’re not the right fit and reference clauses in your freelance contract if you need to. Never apologize for making a business decision or enforcing your contract terms. Try to avoid words like “I feel” and “I believe” and phrases like “you said” or “according to you.” Keep things neutral instead.
  • Set them up for success. I always try to recommend someone in my network or put a call out on freelance groups on Facebook, Slack or Twitter for possible replacements, so I can leave with, “Hey, I know this hasn’t worked out. But here are a few professionals who might be the perfect fit for you.” One of my favorite things about the freelance community is how much we support each other. If you’re feeling lonely in the online world, join in with @ContentClubUK or @BeingFreelance on Twitter.

    Here are more tips on how to set up your own coaching website >>>

How to politely decline a freelance job offer (email template)

Hi Bill,

Thanks for getting in touch. While this sounds like a great project, unfortunately it’s not the type of work I can take on at the moment. I can, however, recommend who specializes in this area.

All the best,

Suzanne

If you don’t have a freelancer to recommend, you can omit the third sentence or include a link to your industry governing body. For example, “I’d recommend taking a look at the ProCopywriter’s directory where you’ll be able to find a match.”

Being prepared to walk away can (sometimes) get you a better deal

Although it might not feel like it, there will always be another opportunity around the corner if you’re prepared to keep looking. Clients are more likely to respect you if you show you have a professional process in place and won’t compromise on your “non-negotiables.” Not only will this help you avoid “bad” clients and build more positive long-term relationships, but you might also find that serious clients are prepared to wait to work with you, accept your new terms, or respect your higher prices. 

Suzanne Al-Gayaar
Suzanne is a copywriter for Jimdo. She discovered her love of marketing when she was growing her first business. When she’s not dreaming up one-liners, you can find her eating mint humbugs, horse riding, or hiking with her dog.