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To Charge or Not To Charge?

Once upon a time, there lived a Chinese Emperor who dearly wanted a beautiful black lacquered box adorned with a graceful picture of a heron – a symbol for strength, purity, patience and long life. A local artist was found and the Emperor was told he could pick up his box at the end of the month.

When the Emperor arrived the box wasn’t ready. Full of apologies, the artist asked the Emperor to come back the following month – then at the end of the year and then the following year and then the next year and so on, until ten years had passed by. Finally, the emperor lost patience and demanded the return of his lacquered box, whereupon the artist produced the box and in a couple of brush strokes painted the most beautiful heron the Emperor had ever seen on its lid.

John James Audubon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The angry Emperor was now full of appreciation and asked the artist the price for his creation. The artist requested 10,000 Yuan – a fortune. The Emperor was outraged and demanded with what right he could claim such a high fee for less than two minutes brushwork. Bowing low, the artist took the emperor into the backroom of his home where hanging from the ceiling were thousands of panels of silk filled with painted herons depicting every imaginable situation during its life. ‘The price,’ the artist humbly replied, ‘is not for two minutes brushwork but for a life-time learning how to paint the heron exactly as you wish.’

The Emperor paid the artist gladly.

What is your price? 

Do you request a price that demonstrates your experience and expertise like the years of learning the artist invested in his work, or do you compromise on your fees because you are facing an angry Emperor and only charge for two minutes brushwork?

There are no rules carved in stone when discussing price ranges. However, there are adjustments available to help a teacher decide on his fees.

  • Which area of work should be charged in full?
  • What work can be waived directly or indirectly?

It depends on two criteria:

  1. the type of teaching involved and whether
  2. the teacher’s finished work is recyclable.

For example:

Is it a lesson rate or a workshop or seminar fee?

  1. A lesson rate is charged by the lesson hour. Should a teacher include the lesson preparation time, the worksheets and other material in the lesson price? What part of the fee should be included in the lesson rate if a teacher has to travel to the student or to a company?
  2. A workshop or seminar is a project and charges a single fee. How much preparation time should a teacher include in the workshop or seminar preparation? What about handout materials and travel costs? What about the costs involved in renting a seminar room, equipment and possibly additional assistance during the seminar or workshop?

It is easy to charge a fee for face-to-face work. Unfortunately, all ‘invisible’ work (such as preparation time), is a high risk area for freelance teachers because they often do not accurately invoice the real working time involved. The outcome is that the annual income diminishes steadily with each unpaid hour worked by freelancers who do not accurately invoice their time.

Not accurately invoicing work

The preparation time is the grey area where most freelance teachers willingly undercut their earnings. It happens because they’re striving to give a good impression to the customer of quality work done in a short time. However, it´s deceptively dangerous as an inaccurate invoice harbours time problems and its accompanying stress levels caused by lack of time. It is also the first step leading to further stress, to future low income, and future customer dissatisfaction because the client will expect your prices to remain in this price range for similar, top-notch work!

How can a company accurately gauge the amount of time a freelancer requires to prepare a seminar or presentation (or write a paper, or correct a thesis) if the invoice states the time needed was just two days work? The next time they may expect you to prepare a new presentation or workshop in a single weekend – rather than the two weeks it actually took to prepare it!

Here is another point to consider… During the two weeks preparation work you are not charging the customer, you are also not able to work for other customers. By not charging the customer, can you still put food on the table?

Is the final work outcome recyclable?

The major problem for freelance teachers charging hourly rates is the fear they will price themselves out of the teaching market when they are not specialists in a clearly defined teaching niche with a clearly defined target profile student or company. These teachers usually work as generalists within their teaching niche and often work in educational institutes.

The question as to how much time is lost with every lesson preparation should in fact, be reformulated. Instead these are the questions you should ask:

1.    Is the work recyclable?

  • Can I repeat this lesson (workshop or seminar) in its entirety for another class, workshop or seminar?
  • Can I reuse sections by copying and pasting sections for another lesson worksheet, workshop or seminar handout easily?
  • Can I prepare the material by inserting changeable fields and property values so that I can easily change the student’s name, the company’s name and logo, company product names, etc.) by updating only the applicable content of inserted fields, property values, or by using the Find and Replace option in program software tools? (e.g. MS Word and MS Excel)

If the answer is ‘yes’ a fee adjustment is an option to reduce your price for a customer or student.

By how much? Up to the maximum number of estimated saved hours in a year.

The first two questions are typical examples where a freelance teacher can keep his lesson rates down by investing time (in advance) when preparing worksheets and handout material because the later pay-off is in the saving of future time preparing lessons or workshops and seminars for new students or customers.

2.    However, Is the material an explicit one-off lesson (workshop, seminar) outside my normal working field? Not likely to be use again?

If the answer is ‘yes’ a fee adjustment is NOT an option without risking the annual income level. The full price (including ALL preparation time) should be charged because there is no way of recuperating time spent in its preparation. This time must be invoiced.

To charge or not to charge for never-ending changes?

There are customers (companies or educational institutes) who continually change their requirements about what should go into a seminar or workshop.. The problem begins when considerable time is needed to carry out changes when the time element is not easily predictable. It’s a fact that often even minor changes can turn a well-prepared workshop or seminar upside-down and cause far more work (and its accompanying time) than expected.

Should they pay for every change or should you just bite the nail and make the requested changes without charging per se?

Well… Normally a contract stipulates exactly the aim of a workshop or seminar and its expected outcome. Such a contract should include a proviso for potential change requests because even seemingly minor changes could work out costly in terms of time.

If the proviso has been inadvertently omitted, it is still better to bring up the subject of paying for any changes before doing the work, rather than risking friction with the customer afterwards.


Lesson rates or fees for workshops and seminars are not carved in stone because there are just too many individual decisions going into its price. It is, however, possible to adjust fees based on:

  1. Your own realistic evaluation by not charging, i.e. can you still put food on the table?
  2. The degree to how badly you would like to add this customer’s or student’s name to your portfolio of customers.

The evaluations for adjusting fees or rates are:

  1. The skills of the freelancer especially when the quality of work increases commensurate with expertise and experience gained from self-development courses (like the artist painting a beautiful heron on the Chinese Emperor’s lacquered box). Remember that a specialist always charges more for his knowledge and expertise!
  2. Whether the freelancer is an experienced specialist within a teaching niche with a well-defined target profiled student, or is a generalist in his branch.
  3. Whether the hours worked in preparation can be recycled or is an explicit one-off exercise.

Only you can really make the decision to charge for the actual hours worked rather than doing work for a fixed price; it depends on the choice made between alternative work-outcome results and alternatives free from constraints (as detailed above).

What Do You Think?

  • What is your opinion?
  • What experiences do you have?
  • Please share how you save time in your preparation work!

Leave a comment in the Add Your Comment box below. 🙂 or send me an email.

It would be great if you could send me a quick email to let me know your thoughts and ideas on this.


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