How to Know When to Say NO To a Freelance Job


I hear you, reader. When the going gets tough, the tough gets going. Of course, by “going gets tough,” I mean “when your workload has a spell that’s dryer than a Kevin Smith film.” And by “tough gets going,” I mean “freelancer starts hitting the job pages hard enough to crack a diamond.”

Or maybe you’re the sort of freelancer who loves working with people for the sake of working with people. You want to help clients and turning down a request is more difficult that not eating the last cookie/chocolate/piece of pizza/other delicious temptation.

However, even then, that doesn’t mean you should always automatically take any work that you’re offered. There are times when you need to say no, as hard as that be. The wrong job could mean a world of heartbreak and headache.

But how to tell? Oh, let us count the ways, shall we?

When you’re not (absolutely) sure you
can complete the work on time

The moment you become a freelancer, deadlines rule your life. As such, you should only take a job when you are absolutely sure you can finish it by a deadline, as missing it could mean no pay and losing time you could’ve spent working on a different job. Not to mention the good will of your client(s) might be damaged, which can be far worse, if not just on an emotional level…

Here’s the thing: you can’t budget just the time it takes to finish a job. Always, always allow yourself leeway when budgeting your time.

Why, you ask? Because life, beloved freelancer. Life has a funny way of happening. Family members get sick and need you to take care of them. Other unrelated business could pop up and demand your attention. Equipment could go on the blink. Your pet could be abducted by international jewel thieves….

…Er, either way, you suddenly have less time to work on something. Suddenly, you can’t finish it by your deadline.

When I was (pretty) new to the game, this happened to me. I had a gig with a very nice client and I assured them that I could finish their request on time. But then life happened; hard. I couldn’t deliver, and I ultimately let this person down. Their email expressing their disappointment still haunts me to this day, and probably will forever.

freelance job tips

When the pay isn’t enough

Yes, it’s hard for a bleeding heart to turn down a person who really wants a project done for a small price. Okay, desperation for a gig could make getting any amount of money were you can get it a tempting notion…

But trust me, it’s hardly ever worth it to take these jobs. Your time is money, freelancer. The time you put into a job means time you aren’t using to look for another gig or working on a different one you could’ve chosen instead. As such, you best make it count.

Freelancing, despite its free-spirited image, is still very much a business, and must be treated as such. As hard as it may be to bring it up, it’s necessary to establish an idea of what your client is willing to pay. The sooner you do this, the way better, in that it helps you decide whether or not you should take this project.

Here’s something that works for me. Have your client talk about their project. Get a feel for it. Then, as soon as you possibly can after this, (gently) discuss the matter of your fee. You have an idea of what you have to do, so compare the price they quote you with that idea.

Let me tell you a little story. One time, I took a gig for a friend of a friend. I thought it would be rude to bring up payment early into the job. As a result, this client sent me all the assets I needed for the job, set the due date, and all that…without establishing a pay rate. Not that I was worried. I mean, surely this person could pay me my normal rate, right? Even with the friend-of-a-friend discount I was going to give them?

No, reader. Negotiate as I might, this client could only afford one-fourth of my usual rate. Because I’m polite enough to make a butler look like someone from Mad Max, I took the job anyway (albeit with some restrictions). Essentially, I lost money on this job.

And yes, reader, it still stings.

payment for freelance job

When the freelance job sounds too fishy

Scam jobs exist, and the people who post them are the scum of the earth. Right next to people who want to rip you off.

When you look at a job that sounds too good to be true, it just might be. Thankfully, there are several ways to see if it is a scam, or isn’t.

  • Scammers often try to get you away from sites where moderators can help you. While I have personally conducted business off such sites, it’s always wise to try to stick to places where you have people that can help you handle disputes. If they insist you work elsewhere, ask why. If the reason they give really doesn’t sound too suspicious/vague, it might be safe, but always trust your gut!
  • Scam jobs often utilise free email accounts (gmail, hotmail, and so on) where you have to send your resumes or anything else with your email/phone number/personal info on it. This is usually a tell-tale sign of a scammer!
  • If a scammer claims to be part of an agency/studio/website/what have you, look up information on it. Is their website a free one that anyone (including scammers) can set up in five minutes? Have they worked with other people in the past? Do they have others working for them? Do these other people have Facebook/Twitter/portfolios/so on that aren’t suspiciously empty or hasn’t been recently set up? Find any evidence that this group is legit.
  • Look at the profiles of the one who posted the job, as well those who repost/positively comment on it. If the profiles are largely empty and are new, that’s usually a tell-tale sign of a sock puppet account. (This possibility essentially shines brighter than the sun if the account was set up right before the ad was posted.)

All in all, if a job takes you too far out of your comfort zone, it might be best to turn it down.

When you can’t communicate with the client 

As you most likely know, most freelancing jobs these days are done remotely. In fact, the whole “working in your pyjamas” thing is what it’s basically known for. As such, email/texting/phone calls/so on will be your main contact with someone…

client communication freelance job

There are two things to consider in regards to communication between you and your client: do they communicate frequently enough to your liking, and (more importantly) can you understand them? Bad communication can ruin a project and make your experience the stuff of your worst, cold sweat-drenched nightmares. There’s nothing quite like being expected to complete a task without being able to know just what the heck you’re supposed to be doing.

And while such a thing can occasionally be an issue, this isn’t just a matter of English not being a client’s first language. (I’ve worked with several people whose mother tongue wasn’t English, and it went pretty well.) If I had a nickel for every time a native English speaker made whatever I type out when blindly slapping my keyboard look like Shakespeare, I wouldn’t be freelancing.

The good news is, this is usually one of the easier things to detect before you get into a freelance job too far. First, look at their job posting. Can you understand it? Do you have a clear idea of what they’re looking for? How vague are they?

The best way to tell is when they directly contact you. Really look at how they communicate. Can you understand them? Are they responding frequently enough for your tastes? At one point, did you ever stop, scratch your head, and think “am I supposed to get a translator?”

Another thing to pay attention to is how easy it is to have your questions answered. The direst sign of bad communication is having to sift through paragraphs upon paragraphs of unrelated junk or have to ask multiple times. (Having to ask twice isn’t too bad, so long as their communication frequency is good enough for you.) What’s more, how well your questions are answered is a huge thing to take into consideration.

And, of course, there’s the method of communication to keep in mind. Not everyone likes email. Some people hate phone calls. If you’re not comfortable with the middle ground you find, it might be best to hang up on this job.

When you dislike the project

Beggars can’t be choosers, freelancer. Not every project is going to have new puppy-levels of fun. But even then, some of the hardest jobs you can take are ones you just can’t enjoy.

Granted, this really isn’t too big of a reason not to take a job, but it’s still something to keep in mind. What you complete here will go into your portfolio, which is what potential clients look at. If you fill your portfolio up with the same kind of work you hate, it’s what will make up your experience, and perhaps even your identity as a freelancer. Taking on too much of this work could mean a harder time getting any other kind of work…

What’s more, I found that it’s harder to work on a project that I’m not passionate about. In fact, this was a key reason I quit a gig after taking it (something I’ve only done once so far). I had to work with a script for a web series, but the client wanted me to copy scenes from a well-known cartoon series and refit it with their own characters. (I’m not kidding. They wanted me to follow the dialogue structure and everything.)

Again, taking work you don’t like isn’t too bad (especially when you’re in dire straits), so long as you don’t do it as often.


When you just can’t work with the client

Listen, you’re going to have some difficult clients here and there. Not all of them are going to be 100% professional. Nobody’s perfect and life happens sometimes…

But even then, there are some cases where clients will soar clear past the realm of tolerability.

Bad clients exist, dear freelancer. There’s a web page dedicated to horror stories of such people. There are just some people out there you just can’t work with. They come in all varieties and sometimes it’s a matter of what your pain threshold is.

Here’s the bad news, reader: clients who you can’t work with are harder to spot before you actually work with them. However, it is possible, provided that you know how to spot red flags!

First, look up info on the buyer. Plenty of sites (such as PeoplePerHour) offer the chance to rate  clients. Don’t just look at the stars; look at what people write in the comments section under them. I’ve seen average ratings have comments about the sort of stuff I wouldn’t want to work with. (Also, to be fair, you should look at what the buyer said about that particular rate-giver in the seller ratings. I’ve seen sellers give buyers a bad rating because the seller didn’t understand how a given online platform works.) Google, LinkedIn, and the like are also your friends.

freelance job buyer history

Second, look at a buyer’s job posting history. A huge red flag (as in, one you can see from space) is seeing the same exact job being posted multiple times within a short period of each other. This usually signifies that freelancers have a tendency to either quit or be fired by this person, which is never good a sign.

Third, really read their freelance job post. You’d be surprised what you could learn from a person’s writing. Picture in your head that the job post is someone talking to you. What sort of person does this post come off as? Do they sound like the kind of person you could work under?

And finally, if you ever have the chance, communicate with this person. First impressions are important, and this shouldn’t be any different. Really pay attention to how they act. How do they make you feel? Do they make you feel confident in their ability to be a client? If you can’t picture yourself working for them, for all that is good and holy, don’t! Get out of there! Eject! Run!

And yes, reader. Sometimes it’s hard to not work for a bad client when it seems that no one will work for them. It’s kind of like trying to be friends with that one kid who eats boogers, hates everything, and has a collection of dead animals under their bed; you don’t want them to have to eat lunch alone, but you can see why they do.

But even then – and I speak from experience – working with a person you can’t work with isn’t good for your health or your sanity.


About the Author

KeraRather than plotting world domination via a contrived plot involving super science-y stuff, Kera Hildebrandt uses her overactive imagination for projects ranging from indie films, web series productions, video games, and articles on sites like With several years of experience and a coffee addiction she needs funding for, she’ll probably work on whatever writing or video production project you had in mind. Check out Kera’s portfolio on PeoplePerHour.

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  • Laura

    Really nice piece. I work solely from Hourlies and I have some really lovely clients. But I also have some really awful ones, for example the one who refused to pay me becuase my work wasn’t “funny enough” – I’m a Copywriter, not a comedian. Or the one who had me re-write a thousand word article for him several times until it reached epic proportions and well over the agreed word limit. Why would I do this, you may ask! Why not just say no? Because, as a seller, I am completely at the mercy of the buyer. If I don’t complete a task, even if it extends way outside of the project scope, I get threatened with bad feedback or refunds. Once they have purchased my hourlie, they can pretty much demand what ever they like. In cases like these I earn less next to nothing, or worse still nothing at all. I’m an easy going kinda gal, but even I don’t work for free. This seems really biased towards the buyer. As a provider of quality freelancers, do you not worry that eventually we will all get fed up with this and stop promoting our services on here?

    • Kelly

      Hi Laura,

      Many thanks for your message.

      I am very sorry you feel that way and I completely appreciate your opinion and honesty. It would be great if you could email us directly at, where you can speak to somebody about this in more detail as we want to do whatever we can to stop people abusing our system – whether they are a buyer or a seller. We would really appreciate your input and want to hear more about your thoughts on our service and features. Thanks so much and have a great day!

  • Mel

    Great article!
    While some clients are absolutely fantastic and a pure joy to work with, others are the opposite. There’s very little you can do once they purchase an Hourlie from you other than giving an immediate refund, which is disheartening when you’re excited about starting a potential new project. Saying no isn’t an option if they are the type of client who flies under the red flag radar and only raises issues mid project or at the end. As a logo designer and illustrator, this can often be the case where all of a sudden, the concept they liked no longer works, or they have actually been ‘designing by committee’ when at first it seemed like they were the ones solely making the decisions. A small simple project can turn into a huge one way outside of the original scope when this happens.
    Outside of PPH, I usually run for the hills with these types of clients, but within the confines of an Hourlie, this can be a little tricky.
    Sadly you can’t vet potential clients any longer on PPH unless they contact you directly for a job. If there is an open job post that looks interesting, there’s no way to check the buyers profile to see if it’s worth your time. This used to be a really helpful option as it saved time, and a lot of grief. Now I have to tentatively click on the ‘bid’ button with one hand on the ejector seat!

    • Kelly

      Hi Mel,

      Many thanks for your comment. I’m very sorry to read that you’ve been having some issues with buyers lately! Could you please email us at to discuss this further. We’d love to try and help in any way we can! Thanks so much!

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