How to Turn Down Freelance Projects Gracefully

(Last Updated On: August 7, 2016)

Even when you know you should say “no,” to a freelance project, it can be hard to take the plunge. I get it, saying “no” is scary. We’re afraid people won’t like us. We’re afraid of missing out on opportunities. If you want to say no without feeling guilty, you first need to understand WHY it’s important to say no. Once you understand why you’re saying no, it can still be hard to find a graceful way to say it. Here’s how I say “no” in various work situations.

If the client and the project are right, but the pay is too low.

Start by negotiating.

Stay firm with your rates and ask the potential client if they have any extra room in their budget. To negotiate well, you need to be confident, and you must be able to show the client why your work is worth the price you charge. Show them explicitly how they will benefit by hiring you. If the company can’t pay more, but you still want the job, offer to limit the scope of the project. This way the client still gets your expertise, and you still get paid what you’re worth.

One word of caution, be ready to walk away if the negotiation doesn’t meet your desired results. Once you’ve started negotiating, you often feel more invested in a project. It can be even harder to say no at this point. Just do it. You might be surprised by the results.

When an education company offered me a project at half my regular rate, I tried to negotiate. When they refused to budge, I politely declined the project. Two weeks later, they emailed me and offered me the job at my regular rate (doubling their initial offer). By saying no and walking away, I showed that I’m a serious professional who values my own work. It turns out, that’s just the kind of freelancer the education company wanted to work with.

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Saying no to problem clients or problem projects.

Say “I don’t think I’m the right fit.”

We all have client horror stories. Even though most of us can spot the problem clients and problem projects a mile away, we STILL say yes. If you value your business and your sanity, you can give a polite no by saying “Thank you so much for describing your project. I don’t think I’m the right fit for the work.” The goal is to make your “no,” about you, not about how crazy your potential client or her project is. If you keep your message short, polite, and to the point then most clients will simply back off.

For clients who ask for more details about why you’re not a good fit, use “I” statements to explain why you’re not able to work on the project. You could say “Even though I’m a freelance blogger, my expertise is in writing finance-related posts. I don’t think I’m the best person to write food-related posts for you.” Whatever you do, do not make your “no” about the client, even if it is about the client. No one wants to hear that they have unrealistic expectations, are too cheap, or are simply crazy. Your goal is to set a boundary without ruining a relationship.

If you simply don’t have time.

Think critically about your goals, then negotiate or say no.

For me, the trickiest situation is when everything about the project seems great, but I don’t have enough time to work on it. If the project will help me reach my business goals (perhaps it pays above my current rate, or has the potential to be an ongoing contract), then I try to negotiate.

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As I mentioned previously, you owe it to yourself and your business to protect your time. It’s your most valuable asset. If you don’t have time, but you love the project, ask if the project timeline is flexible. Can you start the project in one or two months, when you have more availability? If the answer is no, can you ask any of your current clients about pushing back deadlines so that you free up time right away for this new project?

If none of your deadlines are flexible or the potential project will not help you reach your goals, then you need to say no. Don’t let your fear of the future or the allure of a single payment sway you. When you take on work that you don’t have time for, you sabotage yourself. You feel constantly rushed. You risk missing deadlines or turning in mediocre work. When you work more and skip your rest days, you’re also less productive.

Remember that as a business owner, you owe it to yourself, your family, your clients, and your business to put yourself first. You need to take care of yourself because no one else will. Setting boundaries by saying no is one of the most important skills in your toolkit. The more you practice this skill, the easier it will get.

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  • I actually learned the hard way!

    After consultation I was so excited to get another client after I just wrapped up this huge project. The design momentum was there. I was extremely pumped that I missed all the “signs”. After a month of battle my client declined before I had a chance to. We parted ways in a civil manner. But I finally wiped the sweat from my brow and stored the experience in my memory bank.

    Go with you gut! Say NO when its needed! And when it is time to walk away after you’ve tired everything you can. Do just that! Then write it off as a good or bad experience.

    • Ugh, I regretted ignoring one of my early “red flag” clients too. The weird thing is, I still find it hard sometimes to say no. I think now that I am more experienced, the red flag projects are a bit less obvious.