Working for yourself means making your own decisions: where to put your office desk, how long to have for lunch, what type of clients to take on. It’s not always easy to get these decisions right, especially if you’re just getting started, and one of the topics on which you’ll see conflicting advice is the issue of working for free.

As with most aspects of the freelancing lifestyle, there’s no black-and-white, right-or-wrong answer — as we’ve said in the past, it’s important to know what the underlying arguments are and make a choice that works for you. Don’t be ignorant about the consequences, but don’t let someone else dictate what you can and can’t do.

Why freelancers shouldn’t work for free

First of all, the key argument against freelancing for free: It devalues the work that you’re creating, not just your own projects but the efforts of others. Why would a client pay for a 500-word blog post if there are people willing to do it for free? By setting your rates to essentially nothing, you can make it very difficult to earn a living in the future, while dragging down the industry you work in at the same time.

Essentially, freelancing for free devalues your time and talent. It’s like unpaid overtime, or — at its worst — turning up at the office every day and not getting paid at the end of the month. You’ll find that your time can often be spent much more productively, whether it’s taking care of admin tasks or pitching for new clients who are prepared to reward you for your efforts.

Why freelancers should work for free

Although we’d they’re few and far between, there are times when freelancing for free is about more than money. It might give you valuable exposure to a particular audience, to [develop skills in a type of work you want to do more of], or to get your foot in the door with the promise of paid work to come.

If you’re just getting started, or looking to give up the day job, taking on a limited number of unpaid projects can be a useful way of initiating relationships, getting your name out there and building up a portfolio). of work that isn’t just made up of your own amateur projects. Have a scout around online and you’ll find plenty of examples of people who have benefited from taking on free gigs.

Free projects can sometimes give you the opportunity to work on something you’re particularly passionate about — contributing your skills to a charity organization, for example, can be just as fulfilling as volunteering in other ways. And of course if your brother or sister wants help with wedding materials, there’s no reason to demand the going market rate.

These are just a few brief examples, but judge each situation on its own merits. As always, make sure both you and your client are clear on the parameters of the project, because unexpected additions to the job are even more galling when you’re not getting anything back at the end of it.