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Love and Money: What to do when everyone asks you for “help” — which means doing your job for free
Despite what your friends and family might think, your professional expertise isn’t always available for free. Wayhome Studio/Shutterstock

Every occupation has its moochers. If you’re a lawyer, your friend might ask you for legal advice. If you’re a doctor, your neighbor might ask you to take a look at their rash. If you’re a photographer, your mom might ask you to snap her new headshot. If you work in IT? You’re probably constantly troubleshooting everyone’s personal electronics.

To your friends and family, this might feel like a simple request for advice, or be their way of showing interest in your career. But for you — someone who does this for a living — it can produce a twinge of annoyance: They want you to work for free, during your free time.

“It’s important to set boundaries, and this applies to friends and family, too, who may be taking advantage of your skill set for free,” Blair Decembrele, a career expert at LinkedIn, said in an email interview. “Be transparent and know where you are going to draw the line between friendly advice and working for free.” Of course, setting boundaries is much easier said than done. Avoid resenting people for their requests (and resenting yourself for being a pushover) with these tips.

Reframe the request

Most people asking for help aren’t actively trying to scam you or get something for nothing. “They’re trying to get free advice because you’re a professional. … It’s not malicious,” Maggie Mistal, a career consultant and executive coach, said in a phone interview. “They don’t realize that everybody does it [to you].”

Jostle their memory by helping them remember this is your job. “Because I’m a professional speaker, friends often ask me to speak at their company or nonprofit association events for free,” said Cara Silletto, an employee-retention expert and the president of Crescendo Strategies, in an email interview. “When I have to turn down a request, I thank them for thinking of me, remind them that paid speaking engagements are how I make a living and let them know that my team is very protective of my calendar.”

Hand them your card

A visual reminder that people actually pay you for this expertise is a business card. “Have a card ready at all times,” Mistal said. “Say, ’That’s a great question! I can’t talk about it right now, but let’s set up an appointment.” She points out, too, that some professions can claim fear of malpractice — lawyers and, of course, doctors — so you can suggest an official appointment as a means to avoid speaking out of turn (or just speaking when you don’t feel like it).

Share your typical rate

Initiate the money conversation yourself, with the assumption that they will pay you for services — whether you can kind of guess they weren’t expecting to pay or not. For those speaking requests she gets from friends, Silletto said, “I first ask if their event has a speaker budget or if they were hoping to have a speaker at no cost. This helps to clarify that I typically get paid for this type of work.” It’s yet another way to nudge people toward awareness that they are essentially asking for charity. “When they say there’s no budget for speakers, I assure them it’s okay that they asked, and that I do some pro-bono events for my community throughout the year, but that I’ll have to check my calendar to see if any of those slots are still available,” she said.

Buy yourself some time

“My favorite phrase is, ‘I’ll think about it,’” Mistal said. It’s not just a way of shutting down the conversation; it’s a genuine reminder to the friend and to yourself that you have to assess whether you can grant someone space in your work load. “If you’re a helper kind of person, it’s not easy to say no to someone to their face in that moment. I also don’t realize how much I have on my plate sometimes,” Mistal said. “Saying ‘I’ll think about it,’ gives you literal time to think about it, which will give you a much more thoughtful response to what they’re doing, instead of saying, ‘Yeah, sure I’ll do that!’”

Try some humor

Once, when a friend of a friend seemed to be heavily hinting that he was in need of her career coaching, Mistal joked, “Hey, I think I know someone good who does that for a living!” The use of the third person seemed to help. “It changed the energy right then,” she said. Then she broke out her card.

Demonstrate why they ought to pay

Mistal has noticed that when people actually pay for a service, they’re more invested in the process and the outcome, garnering better results. “I tell them flat out, in order for you to get the most out of this experience, there has to be some skin in the game for you,” she said. “So, ‘Here is my rate typically, but I’Il give this discount to you because you are a friend and family.’”

After all, they clearly value your expertise and your abilities, and they need you. “I’ve learned in our culture, we value what we pay for. We don’t value free stuff. If you’re giving away your time for free, people automatically value it less,” she said. Yes, charge your friends and family for the portrait you paint, the birthday invitation you design, the cover letter you edit. If they don’t want to pay? Well, at least you set the boundaries. You stood up for yourself and your skills. And now, they might even leave you alone!