When I launched a side business about five years ago coaching people about their finances, I enjoyed it so much that I barely charged—if I charged at all—for my services. Many of the people I was helping were in the hole—and desperately trying to get out. Plus, I loved talking to them about their money, so it didn’t feel like an even exchange. I felt ashamed asking them to pay me.
After all, I had been deep in debt once, too, so I knew what it felt like to struggle to keep costs down. In fact, it was my own experiences that led me to become a money coach. As I began to share my success story, friends and friends of friends asked me to hold workshops, and pulled me aside for private advice.
I realized that there was a demand for money coaching, so I began doing it during my free time, while keeping my day job in market research. But when I first set out to offer my services, I charged nothing. I was caught up in the classic belief that if you loved what you did, you didn’t have to get paid for it.
Work, by nature, had to be hard—or so I thought. And if it wasn’t hard, then you were pulling the wool over someone’s eyes. So I did a lot of free sessions, irrationally hoping that someone would be so thrilled with what they were getting that they’d donate some money. Of course, that’s not how things work.
As I started helping more people with their budgets, I realized that I could do it all day. I enjoyed problem-solving, crunching numbers, and helping folks find creative solutions to sticky financial problems without having to declare bankruptcy or ruin their credit scores.
I decided that I eventually wanted to do this as a career—which meant that I had to figure out how I was going to, you know, make money. I was working with a life coach at the time, so I shared my aspirations with her, as well as my fear of coming off as greedy if I asked for money. Her advice was simple: Start small. Just charge a little something to gain the experience of someone paying you to do what you love.
So I did. A week later I charged my first paying client $25 for an hour-long session. He laughed and said, "That’s it?" I stopped offering free sessions after that.
A few months in, this client was getting great results, so I considered asking him to write a testimonial—but I was nervous for fear of coming off as selfish. I knew that it would help me build my future business, so I bit the bullet and asked him anyway. To my relief, he agreed.
His testimonial blew me away. I knew something had shifted, but after reading it I realized there was a real ripple effect happening in him. Not only had he started watching his finances better, but his smarter decisions and newfound discipline were also having a positive effect on his personal relationships and health. When I read it, something shifted inside me too.
I realized for the first time that what I offered was valuable to people in ways that even I didn’t expect. That first private client gave me the courage to take on more paying clients.
Still, it seemed that no matter how many people I worked with, I always had the same nervousness in the beginning. The same inner monologue would loop over and over: "You’re not good at this. They’re going to demand their money back and tell everyone how awful you are."
Oh, yes, my inner critic is a full-on monster, and she’s the reason I kept my rates ridiculously, laughably low, just so no one would get mad at me if they weren’t happy with my services.
This charging low fees thing went on for a few months with a handful of clients. Then I was contacted by a woman who’d heard about me through a mutual friend. She was a woman I admired, an entrepreneur who’d started a business a few years prior.
We sat down, and I asked her about her financial situation. I felt that I could help her, and she was nearly ready to say yes—until I shared my rates with her. Her mood changed immediately. Suddenly, she wasn’t so eager.
At first I thought my rates were too high—but it was the exact opposite. She told me that the reason she didn’t want to work with me was because they were too low. "I can tell by your rates that you’re not confident in your abilities," she said. "So I’m not sure this is going to work out."
After the initial shock wore off, I realized she was right. To this day, I’m grateful for her brutal honesty because it made a lightbulb go off. After that, I looked through my testimonials and interviewed past clients about what they got out of working with me. Most clients started to see results around the two-month mark, and the best clients stayed with me for three or four months. The people who didn’t get great results only came to me for one or two sessions.
At the time, I was billing on an hourly basis. So I started lumping sessions together and charging a bundled price to make sure people stayed long enough to see results. Each bundle was several hundred dollars—way more than I was charging before.
When I first started offering bundled pricing, I was terrified. I kept playing with the numbers to make them "seem" lower, doing things like adding more sessions to justify the price.
When people would question my fees, I’d explain that most clients didn’t see results unless they were willing to invest some time, and the price reflected that. But I wasn’t confident enough to charge more—and potential clients picked up on that. They’d ask if I could just do one session or try to negotiate the price. Sometimes I caved, other times I didn’t out of fear that they’d run to the 11 o’clock news with their complaints.
None of my fears ever came to pass. They were and still are completely irrational.
But after landing a few clients at my new, higher rate, history repeated itself. Clients were happy. They were getting good results, writing testimonials and referring friends. I could breathe a bit easier. I felt like I had scaled a small mountain and found a spot at the top where I could rest.
A year later, I raised my rates again after calculating how much I would need to earn in order to leave my corporate job. By this point, I was devoting 20 hours a week to my "side" job, and I knew I wanted to do it full time. I remember the first, four-figure proposal I sent out to a potential client. She didn’t respond for a few days, and I chewed nearly all of my nails off waiting to see if she’d say yes.
Finally, the email came: "Let’s do this." I was excited (for her) and terrified (for me). The inner critic, again looking for trouble, told me the other shoe was about to drop. I held my breath for a few weeks while I worked with the client, but after we both saw that she was getting great results, I let myself relax. And the higher rate became the new normal.
I wish I could say that realizing my worth was a one-time event, but it wasn’t. It’s a journey. The fear never really goes away, but I’m learning how to manage it better. Whenever I offer a new service or raise my rates, that inner critic goes berserk trying to get me to revert to what is comfortable and safe.
Realizing my worth is like climbing a mountain with many peaks. You climb a small peak, and rest for a bit. Eventually, you have to get to the next one, so you keep going—but you’re terrified the whole way. Then you reach the next peak, and the journey starts again. With every peak, however, the urge to continue gets stronger.
I didn’t start off with a ton of self-worth when it came to the services I was providing—even if I felt plenty in other areas of my life! In the beginning, I attached my value to the dollar amount I was charging. But then I focused on whether my clients were really getting results. Then I made a promise to myself that if I couldn’t help them, I’d quit entirely. But as long as I was, I’d stay in the game.
It’s easy to stay stuck at a lower rate in order to avoid rocking the boat. Every time I’ve raised my fees, it’s usually been followed by a week or two of panic attacks, fearing that this time I’ve asked for too much. But eventually the awkward phase passes, and my rates feel like a cozy sweater again.
My hope is that, one day, I’ll be able to silence that inner critic who wants to devalue my professional self. But I know I’m not that enlightened yet. Still, one of the best things about going through this experience was finally realizing my self-worth. Here are some of my top tips:
Start small. Charging something nominal is still better than charging nothing at all. Don’t give your gifts away for free, which could breed resentment later.
Find encouragement. Get a coach or mentor to help you stay the course when you’re feeling uncomfortable about raising your rates or asking for a higher salary.
Focus on your results. When I get into panic mode, I read the testimonials of my clients. Seeing progress in their own words takes the spotlight off myself and shines it back on my clients.
Stay attuned to your emotions. This one is more of an art. If you are starting to feel a little resentful or burned out, it may be time to up your rates or ask for a raise. The increase can help get your sanity back—especially if you offer a client-based service.
Let your rates work their way up. You don’t have to triple your rates overnight to prove a point. That may backfire. Raise them incrementally and keep close watch on the results that gives you—and your clients. Eventually, you’ll be charging what you’re truly worth!
This article originally appeared in LearnVest and is reprinted with permission.
—Jillian Beirne Davi is the creator of Abundant Finances, which offers articles and programs on how to get out of debt, amass savings and live a life full of abundance.