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How to Calculate Your Rate as a Freelance Web Designer

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Freelance web designer careers have a lot of perks—you get to be your own boss, accept jobs on your terms, and maintain control over your creative vision. But that also means it’s entirely up to you to decide how much to charge for your services. While this might come naturally to some lucky folks, for many people the business side of creative work can be intimidating. I mean, how much CAN you ask? And what formula should you use to determine your freelance rate?

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of freelance rate calculation, a good place to start is with our own Skillcrush method. Start off by researching hourly rates—look at design communities, freelance sites and job boards, and other freelancers who do similar work to get a sense of rates. You can also use the Bonsai Freelance Rate Explorer to gauge where the rate you have in mind compares to others around you. Then take your proposed rate, multiply it by the number of hours you plan to work in a week and the number weeks you plan to work in a year, and you’ll land on your estimated annual income.

Still, while those are the basics, the process of hitting a perfect rate is a little more nuanced than that. In order to get a better idea of the deeper ins and outs of establishing a freelance rate for web design work, I went straight to the source and asked two freelance web designers. Here’s what they had to say.

Factor in Living and Business Expenses When You Calculate Your Freelance Rates

One of the first things to do when establishing a fee for freelance work is to take stock of your living and business expenses and determine how much income you’ll need to stay ahead financially.

Nela Dunato has worked as a freelance web designer since 2013, and she says that before she made the jump to freelance work she spent several years tracking expenses like taxes, healthcare, and equipment costs (and how much of her salary went toward them), giving her a good idea of what kind of expenditures to predict moving forward. This allowed her to calculate how much income she would need to cover the basics, as well as how much she would need for some fun and savings.

But what if you haven’t spent the last few years keeping meticulous track of your income and expenses? No problem—simply change your ways starting today. If you’re currently a full-time employee at a company or agency, take this opportunity to get organized, bust open Excel, and start creating a baseline you can use to establish a fee that meets your needs.

It’s also helpful to remember that becoming a freelancer doesn’t have to start off as an all-or-nothing proposition—you can take freelance jobs to test the fee waters while still working in a field or job you’re hoping to transition out of. Lisa Webster, a freelance web designer and Senior Graphic Designer at financial services company MX, says during her early forays into freelance work she tried to match the hourly rate she made at her beginning design jobs. However, Webster adds that in those early days she always maintained regular design employment (both part-time and full-time) in order to keep a steady, predictable income flow while she found her way with freelance work.

Be Patient With Yourself—It Takes Time, Trial, and Error to Reach an Optimal Freelance Rate

So how long should it take to find your own way, and how do you know when you’ve gotten there? Dunato says that—after a process of trial and error—she arrived at her first optimal fee after about two years of freelance work experience. “I charged per-project rates and logged my working hours so I knew what my hourly rate was on each project,” Dunato says. “At the end of the project I’d compare my actual hourly rate with my desired hourly rate, and if it ended up lower I knew that I’d need to charge more on the next project of similar scope.” Dunato says she continued to adjust her prices slowly as she gained more real-world experience until she finally hit pricing that was in line with the amount of work she was putting into design projects.

Webster says getting where she wanted to be fee-wise was a multi-year process for her as well. It was something she knew she’d accomplished when she started successfully charging fees similar to what an agency had been charging their clients for her hourly work. Webster credits the design portfolio she was able to build while working for agencies as her path to reaching the freelance fee she wanted—by taking her experience into the freelance sphere, she started landing bigger and better clients and was able to bring her agency rate with her.

Flat or Adjustable? Per Hour or Per Project? Decide Which Rate Models Work Best For You

Two important things to consider when calculating your freelance work rate is whether your fee should stay flat or be adjustable based on job-specifics, and whether you should charge for billable hours or base your pricing on each overall project. It turns out, it really depends on your own work style and client base.

Dunato charges per-project and bases her price on the amount of work involved. “I’ll charge more if the job includes strategy, consulting, or managing other people,” Dunato says. As for choosing to charge per-project versus billable hours, Dunato says it’s less risky for the client. “My productivity fluctuates,” Dunato says. “Sometimes I’m very inspired and I get things done super quick, and sometimes it takes me more time to complete a project. This has nothing to do with the client, so they shouldn’t pay me more or less based on that.”

On the other hand, Webster maintains a relatively consistent rate and charges per hour (though she does modify her standard rate and offers a higher “rush rate” in cases where potential clients want projects done in a shorter time than she initially quotes them). Regarding her decision to use billable hours rather than charge per project, Webster says the hourly approach makes more sense for her since they are so many unexpected turns in a design project. “I’ve worked with too many entrepreneurs who keep adding changes that affect the entire design,” Webster says. “This can result in hours of extra work that wouldn’t have been anticipated if you charged them per project.” Webster says that charging per hour protects her from having to either eat the cost of all those extra hours.

When You Outgrow Your Rates, Don’t Be Afraid to Change Them

While it can take a few years to reach a rate that really fits you, there will inevitably be a time when you outgrow that first optimal rate. But what’s the best way to recognize if it’s time to make a rate change? For Webster, it’s about the quality you can produce and convey through your portfolio. “People will judge you based on your skills and what you can deliver rather than by reading through a resume of your experiences,” Webster says. She adds that two years ago she raised her rate based solely on a portfolio update that included new higher quality designs and projects than what she’d produced previously—it’s important to remember that a design career will always be an evolution of skills, and your rates should reflect that growth.

Additionally, Webster says to always keep on eye on the amount of work you’re doing and if the current rates you’re charging justify the effort you’re putting in. “The more work I get, the less I’m willing to work for a lower rate,” Webster says. “So if you ever find yourself being swamped with too much work, that’s a good sign to raise your rate.”

To close, while there’s no magic formula or perfect road map to establishing your own freelance design rates, there are some basic guidelines to follow to pin down a rate that fits your unique needs and skill level. By using the market as a comparison point, monitoring your living and business expenses, allowing yourself time to optimize your rate, and picking a fee model that fits your work style, and you’ll be well on your way to establishing your own perfect freelance rate.

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  14. Andrew Hardy Replied

    I have a 1st class degree in software engineering, 10 years industry experience mostly midle-ware, low level server applications and mobile applications (Symbian). Since then I spent a number of years on a PhD and gained and maintained software development skills but left (ABT) due to ill health I now work for myself.

    My current primary skills / expertise are Android, Java, Spring MVC, Java Server Pages, MS SQL and proper relational database design.

    I tend to play down / not get over well my skills face to face. I understand the difference between web application developer and a web designer and so I would never say I was a skilled web designer and have steered clear of this work. On the other have I know people who have had nothing to do with software development, picked up WordPress 6 months ago and now call themselves an expert web designer!

    Recently through a kind of serendipitous circumstances I was asked to do a web site for someone I knew years ago and so…

    … knowing I am not an experienced web designer, completely up front and with their preferences we/I selected a quality HTML5 CSS template, I adjusted some of the colors and adapted it into a set of Java Server Pages. I am now in a position to provide content and literally ANY back end functionality they want. I am doing this as a gift (possible donation) and I am adding functionality they may not want that I can switch out but may be useful later. It seems to be working well.

    So… I have been going round saying I don’t have web design expertise, which is true, but then people are going to the guy whose only (literally) experience is 6 months WordPress who has the gift of the gab I don’t have. The thing is I using an HTML template I can provide something perfectly adequate in look, but in terms of content and specifically backbend functionality the only limit is time (not a boast), I am a software engineer. I can port and transform existing data, I can provide a supporting Android or desktop application, I can connect them to remote public or private APIs on the internet, connect them to sensor devices etc etc…. already worked a bit with commerce apis if needed this can be completely tailored, and most of the time I won’t have to pay for components (or if I do and they have source I can adapt them)

    Thing is how do I market this skill set when saying I can “do web sites”. How do I get over how I am different to the 6 months gift of the gab WordPress guy, while being honest about where my skill set is and what it can do for them. What do I charge?

    One thought is to build a dummy web site with loads of great usable functionality and use that as a show case. Also to keep doing stuff and get known.

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      Hi! I’m a WP and from-scratch web designer. Let me know if you’d like to work together on a project.

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  21. Vanessa Keeton Replied

    Don’t forget about paying office expenses and Uncle Sam. As a freelancer you have to pay as both the employee and the employer. So “$55/hour X 1,000 hours = annual income of $55,000” isn’t as simple as if you were getting a W2 as a regular employee. You are paying about twice the taxes as normal. You will also have operating expenses that you will need to cover, since you are working for yourself.

    I normally figure out what I want my net income to be, then up that by 40%. Trust me, the first time you fill out a schedule C, you will be happy you did, because that first giant check you have to write to the IRS hurts if you didn’t expect it.

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      Man you said it. I had to learn this the hard way. 

    • Iwona Kraśko Replied

      That’s some way of solving the problem, but I did it once and my client wanted to correct my hours!!! Like he knew how much time everything can be done… Anyhow, I have one pricing now. kuchnianawesele.pl

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  22. Rich Replied

    This is a great article, however I tend to charge by project because not every project is the same. I recommend that you charge what you feel you are worth as well as what you are offering. A real developer is not just a Web designer in order to charge top dollar you have to over deliver and if the client can’t afford you or is not willing to invest then it is important to make a decision if you want to move on or not. You can get a Web site built for free or on the cheap, but if you invest cheap that is what you will get. That’s business! A Web presence is an investment and should be treated as such just like building an office building or a skyscraper. First of all the client has to be serious about their goal or they are wasting your time secondly a Web site is a part of an overall marketing campaign. A good Web designer is able to write code, copy, databases and print marketing material as well. If they can’t do that then they should know where to outsource the work to a professional that can meet the clients needs. Also, original keyword focused content is not cheap, it takes brainstorming, planning, editing and proofreading. A good developer can charge whatever they want if they can produce a high return on investment. How would you feel if you built a Web site for $2,000 and your client sold the site for $200,000 or more? It has happened! A Web site is not a “get rich quick scheme” it takes time, patience and a lot of hard work that most people do not have the skill or patience to do. If you are a good negotiator you can ask for and get what you want. There are a lot of crappy Web sites out there because people get them on the cheap. People can tell before they read a word that the Web site is cheap and that’s the way that they look at your company as cheap. Typically you only get one shot because once someone goes to your site and see that you don’t care enough to do your very best it only takes a second for them to click over to your competition and they usually never come back. Your online reputation is too important to be cheap.

  23. In developing country the price is always low and the developer most of the time dont get the exact payment. But still freelancing web design is one of the most promising and profitable job.

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