Freelancing: How To Say No To A Paying Job

When you freelance full-time, you’ve got to keep working to keep bread on the table. It’s easy enough to say no to jobs that pay in pennies or so-called “exposure.” Most of us have been around long enough to recognize scams like those. But how can you say no to a bona fide paying job?

Some people don’t. When I started freelancing, I took every gig I could get. Some were worse than others – far worse. But when you’re new to fluxuating income, turning down a paying job seems insane. And sometimes you literally can’t afford to turn down a job.

But unless you’ve hit rock bottom, you should always consider saying no to a paying job under certain circumstances. Here are some of mine, feel free to share some of your own!

If it’s outside your mission
I recommend everyone have a mission or goal, a single sentence that keeps you focused. Mine used to be “I help people with their computers,” but when I switched from full-time consulting to full-time writing it became, “I write about business and technology, and I also write fantasy and science fiction.”

That makes it easier to say no when, for example, someone calls me looking for tech support. After 13 years my first instinct is to jump up and get started. My mission reminds me that’s not my job anymore. It’s still hard, but it helps me avoid an instinctive, “Yes, of course I’ll help!”

If it takes more out of you than it brings in
There’s more to a job than pay. Maybe there’s so much involved that your hourly pay ends up less than a tenth of a penny. Maybe there are only three part-timers working with you plus the boss hates the project and wants to undermine it. Pay is great. Pay for misery is not.

If your Spidey-sense goes off
Sometimes a job just feels wrong. The project looks interesting, the people are nice, but there’s something twinging your senses. Stay far away from projects like those. In my experience your instinct is always right.

If it’s beyond your skills
It’s okay to tell a potential client, “I don’t know how to do that.” In fact, it might just work to your advantage. People appreciate the truth. They also appreciate a good referral if what they want isn’t in your skill set. And by “good” I mean a trusted referral, someone you know personally, not just the latest business card to cross your desk.

If you don’t want to
I received an offer the other day. I thought about it a moment and decided that, while I had the technical ability for the gig, I didn’t want to do it. There’s no freelance rule that says you have to have a reason to decline.

Now, let’s get to the big question: How, exactly, do you say no? Many freelancers take jobs they don’t like because they’re afraid to say no, or they feel guilty, or they think their business will UTTERLY FAIL if they don’t.

You have to resist that fear. Saying no is quite simple: you say, “no.” Believe me, that is the hardest thing in the world to do, especially when it’s a sweet project and you’ve been eating ramen for a week. Don’t hem and haw and say you’ll think about it. Just say no.

But there’s more to no than “no.” I mentioned the importance of a good referral. You may also want to…

  • offer resources like Web sites and articles
  • suggest other approaches

But you don’t want to…

  • Blow them off
  • Upsell them
  • Talk them into your services just so you can get the gig
  • Refer them to a poor referral
  • Be unprofessional

If you maintain your equilibrium and say “no” with grace and dignity, your freelance business will thrive and you won’t have to worry about miserable, time-consuming, soul-sucking gigs.

How do you say no to a paying job? Share in the comments!

(Image: cbenjasuwan /

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