What should you charge? 3 non-obvious perspectives

written by Bari Tessler July 5, 2016
What should you charge

It’s trickier than playing Old Maid with a sneaky six-year-old. Bramblier than a blackberry thicket. More emotionally confusing than the last episode of Game of Thrones. And on top of all that? It’s incredibly, life-altering-ly important.

It’s the question that echoes in creative entrepreneurs’ minds at least once in their career (but usually more like one thousand times):

What should I charge?

Whether you’re a massage therapist or a marketing consultant, a Wiccan candlemaker or website developer, this question has probably rattled about in your noggin a few times. It might have even kept you up at night.

Most creative entrepreneurs and freelancers hang their shingles with high hopes and generous intentions. We want to share our gifts with the world, make a difference in people’s lives — and we want to do so in a way that helps us thrive: financially, creatively, and emotionally. That means we get final say over our business card design. We decide whether Arbor Day deserves vacation time. And we set our prices and fees.

That’s the great news: there’s no hard-and-fast blueprint or formula for how to determine your fees as a creative entrepreneur. But the tricky, brambly news? There’s no hard-and-fast blueprint or formula for how to determine your fees as a creative entrepreneur.

Many creative entrepreneurs avoid answering this question for themselves (or don’t even consider that they have the power to ask it) and let the market set their fees for them. A newbie therapist researches average hourly rates in her city and copy/pastes them on her own site, without thinking twice. A fledgling graphic designer tentatively quotes her price, and when one prospective client gets sticker shock, she concludes the market just won’t bear what she had hoped for.

While it’s a fabulous idea to poll the marketplace to get a sense of what similar service providers charge (and I always recommend it), relying only upon others’ ideas to set your prices and fees opens the door to some tricky territory.

Maybe your competitor with the ultra-low rates is struggling to meet her basic needs — and by adopting her pricing structure, you’ll just make the same mistakes. Perhaps that discounted Virtual Assistant agency is actually outsourcing their work to people in the Philippines, where the cost of living is low enough, they can afford to undercut someone living in San Francisco. Or maybe you’re facing a health crisis or have a baby on the way or have any number of other reasons for needing to charge differently than your competition.

Allowing others to set your pricing might seem easy and rational — but you may soon find yourself struggling to achieve the thriving lifestyle you hoped your business would help you enjoy.

But perhaps even more importantly: allowing others (whether it’s your community, competitors, or clients) to determine your pricing means missing a fantastic opportunity for personal discovery and development. I firmly believe that, when approached mindfully and compassionately, money can be our portal into greater empowerment and peace of mind. And the question, “what should I charge?”, while it might be a gigantic nut to crack, is also rich with growth potential for those brave enough to ask it (and keep asking it) consciously.

Another tempting solution to the “what should I charge” dilemma is jumping on the “charge what you’re worth” bandwagon. If you haven’t encountered this phrase, trust me: it’s everywhere these days, especially in the online business/creative entrepreneurial world. And while it’s founded upon good intentions (Claim your self-worth! Charge what you need to thrive!), I believe it leads us down a dangerous primrose path.

First of all, you, as a precious and unique human being, have an incalculable value. It’s beyond infinity. So how could you possibly charge what YOU are worth? You simply can’t. What’s worse: buying into the “charge what you’re worth” concept might lead you to believe you’re not as valuable as your competitor who earns more than you — and that’s a painful shame spiral waiting to happen.

There’s a huge difference between what YOU are worth, as a person, and what the work you do is worth, as a service or profession. After all: the busboy clearing your plates at your favorite restaurant is worth every bit as much, as a human being, as your Gestalt therapist. But does that mean those two different services — which entail extremely different amounts of training and investment — should be compensated equally? Probably not.

Finally, if you believe the “charge what you’re worth” mantra, you might find yourself wishing more than accomplishing. It’s easy to hear this idea and believe all you have to do, to earn more money, is the inner work of claiming your value. While this vulnerable, emotional, deep work is crucial for every human being (and perhaps especially for business owners struggling with these questions), it takes more than that to raise your earning potential. Depending on your situation, inner work might be sufficient — or you may need to complement it with additional training, marketing, financial savvy, or infrastructure support.

The truth is, “what should I charge?” is not a simple question. In fact, it’s a whole series of questions that, when mulled over and deeply considered, tell a rich story about you and your work in the world. It deserves thoughtful inquiry about your inner world, your outer actions. It’s about numbers — but far more than that.

To truly answer this question, then, I invite you to consider it from three different angles: the three phases of my Art of Money methodology.

body check in

Phase #1: Money Healing

We begin here, with the inner, emotional considerations behind the “what should I charge” question.

Do a Body Check-In.

Slow down, take a breath, and create a safe, non-judgmental space for yourself. You’re not judging, here, you’re simply curious and loving and compassionate.

Ask your heart (or gut): What would feel good and right to charge for this? Listen to the answer that comes. Don’t worry: it’s not the only thing we’ll consider. But it is crucial to begin here.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Body Check-In, get a full, guided walk-through here.

Notice any shame, fear, or resistance.

If you feel conflicted about your fees or prices, give yourself permission to feel those feelings. Go into them. Shake their hand and say “hi.” Ask to hear their story. Feel how they move in your belly or constrict in your jaw. Journal about them, if that feels right to you.

Do you worry that you’ll betray your family or friends if you make significantly more money than them? Does launching your own business feel frightening to you, because everyone in your circle works corporate jobs? Are there some old beliefs about wealth or work you’re ready to release? Is it time to update your financial identity?

Claim your value.

Do you have a solid sense of your self-worth, as a human being? Get curious about how you can truly feel this, in your bones. Find ways to connect to your sense of your own, imperturbable value — whether it’s reading mystical poetry, walking in nature, or having a dance party with friends.

Do you have a solid sense of how valuable your work and services are? Does everyone around you gush over your work, while you downplay its importance and worth? Could you stand to get a little more objective about your work’s role and value?

Try this: sit down for ten minutes (or more, if you like) and write down everything that makes your work valuable. All of your training and education, all of your skill sets and gifts and superpowers, all of your life experience and triumphs and cap-feathers, all of the struggles you’ve overcome that taught you life lessons. Please do this for yourself; it’s an incredible experience.

There’s tons more support for you around value and money (and beyond) right here.

Phase #2: Money Practices

Deciding what to charge isn’t only an emotional matter, so we don’t want to make our final decision only from our hearts. This is also a practical, rubber-meeting-the-road, nuts ’n bolts affair. Here are a few smart, simple ways to consider the practical side of this question:

Research other colleagues in your field

What’s happening in your marketplace? Research colleagues and competitors at your level of experience and expertise, but also a bit ahead of you and behind you to get a good sense of this.

Also consider where in your marketplace you’d like to fit. Do you want to keep your fees at the lower end of the spectrum, but serve more people? Or would you like your brand to feel more luxurious and pricey?

My Private Financial Therapy sessions, for example, are at the higher end of the pricing scale in the therapy world, but at the lower end of the coaching world and right in the middle end of the scale for the accounting-consultant world.

What community do you want to serve?

Are you happy charging top dollar for your health coaching, so only the wealthy and extremely motivated work with you? Or does it feel better to charge a little less to accommodate more of the population? Would it feel good to you to offer several tiers of services (and pricing) to serve a wider variety of people? Perhaps a high, medium, and low price point offering? Or pricey services with a free blog for those at lower income levels?

If your fees are higher, would it feel good to you to donate some of your time and services to lower income folks or nonprofits?

What is your money ceiling?

Is there a certain income that you’ve never surpassed? Whether it’s $15 per hour, $5000 per month, or $60,000 per year, what is the upper limit of what you’ve earned so far? Take a hard, long look at this money ceiling (we all have them!). Are you ready to break through to a higher income level? Consider how you might shape your pricing to support this breakthrough, noticing any resistance that arises along the way.

Phase #3: Money Maps

You are an evolving, ever-changing and deepening human being. And your money must evolve and change with you, over time. In Money Maps, we zoom out and consider where you are in the grand scheme of your life and what your money must do to support where you are now and where you’re heading.

Create a Three-Tier Money Map

Figuring out how much money you need to make a month (or year or hour) is a crucial exercise for any entrepreneur. But rather than figuring out one, end-all-be-all number, I find it more helpful to take a wider view and create a Three-Tier Money Map.

First, free write about 3 lifestyle tiers: what would it feel like to meet your Basic Needs Level? What about a Comfortable Lifestyle? And finally, what about Ultimate Lifestyle? What sensations and emotions would arise for you, meeting these three levels?

Next: what expenses would you meet, at each of these three lifestyle levels? Don’t include numbers just yet — simply list out what feels good and important for you, at each of these. Is a daily latte a Basic Need for you? Is your Virtual Assistant at a Comfortable Lifestyle tier, or has she become utterly essential for you? Please know: these tiers are 100% subjective and only your answers matter, here. Not your father’s or colleague’s.

Finally: tally up your expenses for a month at each lifestyle tier. Divide annual expenses by 12 to get your monthly expense and don’t forget to include savings, debt repayment, and unexpected expenses (like the vet or car repair) if that feels right to you.

Once you have your monthly required income for each lifestyle tier, take a moment. Let those numbers sink in. Consider: where are you at, right now? Where would you like to be in six months? In a year? What do you need to charge in order to make that happen?

There’s more support for creating a Three-Tier Money Map right here.

Consider how your rates might shift, over time

Once you arrive at a pricing structure that feels good to you, make sure to check in every three months or more. Does it still feel good to you, on an emotional and practical level? Have you gained more experience or training that warrant a higher rate? Are you in the thick of a Big Life Transition — marriage, divorce, a new baby, a health crisis — or expecting one soon? How might your rates need to shift to support this?

You might also consider whether the economy (or your specific marketplace, field, or customers) has shifted, and if you’d like to adjust your rates to accommodate this change. You might choose a lower rate for a long time, so you can serve more people — but some time later realize you need to increase your fee (or get more support staff) so you don’t burn out. Listen to your energy levels and honor what you need to create a business and life that’s not just sustainable, but helps you thrive.


Sit with these questions. Listen to the first answer that pops into your awareness — but also wait for deeper, truer answers. And know that your answers can and will shift, over time, right along with you and your business.

Perhaps above all: give yourself permission to bring some depth to the question, “what should I charge?” Put yourself in charge of answering it, not anyone else. And put your highest, smartest self in charge of answering it, not your scared, resistant, naive, or vulnerable selves (though they need love and honoring, they don’t need to be in the driver’s seat).

Treat “what should I charge?” less like a math equation with a simple, clear-cut answer … and more like a money koan: a riddle to be sat with and contemplated and mused upon and revisited. A profound consideration worthy of your patience and sensitivity. A question that, as you answer it, just might invite you into a deeper, fuller experience: not just of your business, not just of your relationship to money, but also into a more empowered, confident, and wise relationship with yourself.

As you continue to adjust and fine-tune how much you charge and what your fees are, you can (and I hope, will) craft a business model that serves your entire life: not just the community who so needs your gifts, but also you. May you create and evolve a beautiful business that supports the lifestyle and values you hold dear.

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