What To Do With Dirty Money

Dirty MoneyThere are times when taking people’s money – even for a job you worked hard on – just doesn’t feel right. Some clients get a break because they needed help and you wanted to be generous or kind, but sometimes…

…sometimes a client wants to give you money and it just feels dirty.

You almost want to give the money back. “No, keep it. Thanks. No charge” you might say. You just want the project – and the client – gone. Come on. You know the jobs I’m talking about. Every freelancer has at least one memorable working relationship that leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Think back. Think about the overly difficult projects that extended far over the original scope, the clients who just couldn’t be pleased, or ones that asked you rush and work overtime – and you did.

Think about those rare relationships when you really didn’t like the client’s attitude but felt obliged to do the work. How about when you said yes to a job just because you really needed the money?

Listen to That Little Voice

A post-project “dirty” money feeling usually comes from jobs that you shouldn’t have taken in the first place. Thankfully, one tried-and-true method helps you discern which job aren’t going to be a good fit: trust your gut instinct.

There may not be any particular reason that you can see to pass the project over. But something way down deep inside tells you that you should leave this project for someone else to handle.

Most of the time, we hush up that little voice inside. We tell it to be quiet. We heap on the self-reassurance excuses. We get determined to face the project with clear communication to prevent any possible misunderstandings.

Nope. That little voice was right. The best plans always go astray, and sure enough, the project becomes one that you wished you’d never agreed to work on.

Pass It On

It’s too late to pass on the job. You’ve come this far. You can either tie it up or tell the client it’s just not a good fit, or you can put your head down and bull through the rest to get the work off your desk.

You’ll probably feel relieved when the day you’re done comes. You probably won’t feel very excited about the payment. It has lost its meaning. It isn’t a good incentive or reward any more. And when you look at your bank account, seeing the amount just makes you feel bad, reminding you of the past.

A reward should be a positive experience. It should make us feel better in some way. Proud, happy, fulfilled… not bitter and a little disgusted. That positive reward, somewhere along the way, turned into a negative reinforcement.

So pass it on. If you really don’t want to touch the money, accept payment gracefully and then pass on the dollars to someone else. The best way to deal with a negative is to turn it into a positive.

Give the money to a charity. Offer a lump sum as an angel investment to someone who is really struggling. Throw a contest and give the cash away on your blog or get some books and hold a raffle.

Trust me – you’ll feel better than if you just paid your Visa bill.



About the author: If you want more great advice on having a better freelance business from a freelancer that calls it like it is, head on over to James’ blog, Men with Pens. Read up on his tips and in-depth advice to build your freelancing business for success! Better yet, subscribe to the Men with Pens feed here.


  1. says

    James –
    It all comes down to making sure you enjoy what you do for a living – this is a good way to take the sting out of a bad project so you’re not carrying around the negative experience anymore.

  2. says

    Oh, so true.

    Even when you’re working in a field you enjoy, you still have to pick your clients, making sure they are a match for you.

    Part of it is also educating the (potential) client as to the value of your work, how much time and effort something really entails, etc.

    At the least, even if you don’t take them on as a client, they will have gotten a better understanding of what you have to offer. They might even come back after going with someone else, and THEN realizing they should have spent more money on you.

  3. says

    Gosh James, you just stole this post from me. This was something I always wanted to write about.

    Yeah, I do have this terrible instinct to tell the client, “Hey listen bud, there are a zillion other sites out there where you can better spend your dollar.”

    And then, if I do write for them, or carry their ad, I’m very concerned if they’re getting their targeted traffic and revenue. But then, should I worry about it?

    Does VOGUE magazine worry about how many bottles of Davidoff perfume it sells? Does a bankrupt airline carry passengers for $1 per fare? And does any country allow that you can drive at 185 mph just because there’s no other vehicle on the highway?

    So, lately, I don’t see any harm any accepting money. While it’s my responsibility to do the best job I can, it’s also not my responsibility to see that the client gets his return from the market. Or else, I would be heading a marketing research team, right?

    Thanks James for the thought-provoking post :-)

    Time it took me write this post: 16 minutes.

  4. says

    James, I really liked this post and I agree with you completely. I have my own personal spin on it, as I feel this way sometimes about my day job. The things I have seen and cannot talk about… (don’t want to be dooced!) even if the pay is good, it just isn’t worth it.

  5. says

    @ Brett – Avoid a Dooce. Nuclear power and Dooce don’t mix.

    @ Zakman – Harry and I have differing levels of tolerance about the “just a job” view. I say, “Well, if that’s what they want and they’re going to pay… We’ve done what we could to give suggestions. Take the money and be thankful.” Harry feels that it’s our responsibility to avoid taking money when it would be more wisely spent… though he has to pay bills, too.

    The post came about after a stupid, tiny, $60 job. I don’t want that $60 like you wouldn’t believe. I’d rather starve. I don’t want any association with the client anymore, money or not. I want to burn his cheque.

    I won’t. I’ll cash it and give it to someone who needs it more than I do. Some jobs just aren’t worth the money.

    @ Nez – Sometimes the best clients turn out to be the ones that became the worst. You can use your six sense all you want, but sometimes one slips through.

    For those still developing that sixth sense, remember this post. You’ll need it.

    @ Dave – I think turning the negative into a positive is the best way to continue loving what you do, despite bumps in the road.

  6. says

    @James – I perfectly understand that you wouldn’t feel like taking the $60 check.

    I think it’s great that you’re capable of turning the money over to more important issues. I’d love to do that, but I’m not there… yet.

  7. says

    Okay – the “Atomic Dooce” is off my list. And I totally agree with you. There are times when it is just not worth the money. Like today.

    I hear Wal-Mart is looking for greeters. Yeah, that’s the ticket… greeter by day, blogger by night.

    Could start a new blog called “The Blue Light Blogger”. But then some people might think it’s about a really crappy beer… ;)

  8. says

    Hi James – I know exactly what you mean. I’ve had customers like over the years. And you’re right – you kind of develop this instinct that tells you they’re going to be complete as.h..es.

    They waste most of your time – they’re a pain in the ass throughout the job, then they don’t want to pay, or they want the work done for nothing. They leave you feeling like sh.t and no matter what you do for them – you know they’re going to tell everyone you suck anyway.

    I had one customer who was that bad that I once had to put the office phone on busy for half an hour after speaking to her. And she didn’t just do it with me – I spoke to other suppliers too and she made them equally miserable.

  9. says

    I’ve had that client … the one I knew I shouldn’t have accepted … but I really needed the money. I’ve vowed to go with my gut from that point on. Nobody wins when the client is unpleasable (new word?) and the money feels dirty.

  10. says

    Hmmm…I don’t know. There have certainly been jobs I was glad to see finished once and for all, but that hasn’t happened in quite a while, so maybe I just don’t remember that “dirty” feeling.

    To be honest, if I resented a job/client that much, I’d probably take the money gladly, figuring I’d more than earned it in stress-equity. :)

  11. says

    I agree with Dave Navarro up top – do what you love. If you don’t love it, there are plenty other gigs out there to try. :) But yes, I’m not a freelancer, but I know the feeling still!

  12. says

    Well, I’ll take dirty money, clean money, money stuffed down shirts, money from a girl scout . . .

    I know what you mean though. I own a landscaping business and there have been a few clients we have turned away and had we taken the job, I’d probably have not wanted their money. But in the end I would have kept it.

    An old real estate investor mentor of mine hard wired my thought process to look for value, hidden profits, and deposit every penny I come across.

  13. says

    Yes I know what you are talking about. Had one of them myself and it wasn’t pretty. But then, I guess it comes with the territory and I just moved on – gladly.

    Sometimes it is better to cut your losses than trying to fix things that aren’t fixable at all. Not matter how hard we try, some clients are just never going to be pleased and separation is the answer for both parties.

  14. says

    James, I can really relate to this post. In the past I didn’t trust my gut and always regretted it! I just passed on a job this week and congratulated myself for trusting my instinct and avoiding that “I need a shower” feeling that comes following a job you should never have taken. Now, I’ll have your little ditty in my head to remind me should I ever be tempted to ignore that little voice that says “run Forest run!”


  15. says

    @ Karen – That’s what happens to most newcomers looking to establish themselves. They don’t have that sixth sense working for them yet. But even seasoned pros get screwed over.

    The funny thing about the $60 job? The client was located in Las Vegas – Harry went to hand-collect the cheque in full leather and on his bike. I felt like I knew the Mafia.

    @ Monika – Learning how to cut your losses is something that comes with experience, too. Many people can’t afford to or they get all twisted up inside trying to do the right thing. It’s a tough call, but learning how to say, “This far and no further” is important.

    @ John – Yeah, I’m generally the one of us two that says, “Just take it.” But this time, even I felt dirty. I’m rubbing my hands just thinking about it. The kicker? It seemed such a nice, simple job with a nice, friendly client.

    @ Hank – Dave’s a smart guy ;)

    @ AnnaLisa – Ha, that’s true. Sometimes the stress is worth every damned penny.

    @ Shari – I hear you. We’ve been through our times of needing the money so bad that we couldn’t say no. But years later, we still remember the incident. Only the good clients should stay in your memory that long.

    @ Cath – You pegged it perfectly. No matter what you do, sometimes, it just isn’t worth it.

    @ Brett – Sleeman’s Silver Creek, my friend.

  16. says

    I agree with the charity solution. If you don’t want the money or you feel it’s tainted, that’s the best way to turn it into a positive situation.


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