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The question

This came through the family's diplomatic back channels: The sister of an in-law had a project in mind and wanted it done by a qualified professional. Was I interested and, if so, how much would the fees come to? By return messenger, I answered that I would be happy to help, and quoted a fee substantially below the going rate (family being family). The wind brought the reply: Would I do it for a quarter of the fee I had quoted? Respectfully, I had to decline. I explained that my profession has strict requirements for professional service (not to mention my own standards), and the number they had suggested would have required many weeks of unpaid work. My own family's budget could not support that. This raises old questions: Should there be a family/friend discount, and how much is appropriate?

The answer

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"The family's diplomatic back channels"? "Return messenger"? "The wind brought the reply"?

Why am I getting a mental picture of you typing messages on an ancient Underwood, rolling them in a vacuum tube, giving them to an Igor-like cousin who says "Right away, mawster" before pulling down on a wall-sconce, causing a bookshelf to open, then shuffling down a torchlit tunnel to deliver them?

Maybe I've seen too many old-timey movies.

But (kidding aside), I've also seen the type of scenario you describe go pear-shaped more than once – resulting in friendships slipping under the waves with a big bloop, after lots of angry crossfire.

Personally, I'm opposed to the whole notion of the "friend and family discount."

Whenever I hire someone to do something for me, I pay the full rate, regardless who they are.

Example: Pimping out my last book, Damage Control: How to Tiptoe Away From the Smoking Wreckage of Your Latest Screw-up With a Minimum of Harm to Your Reputation (winner of the "Longest Subtitle of the Year" award that year, I'm proud to say), I hired a friend(ish) to help with publicity. She offered me a discount. But I was like: "Nix. I pay what everyone else pays."

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(And, believe me, every penny I paid her was like a knife in my Scroogy McHeart. These publicists aren't cheap: $100 an hour! But in the end it was money well spent, I felt.)

By the same token, if a friend or family member wants to hire me to do something, I expect them to cough up the full whack.

Them: "Hey, Dave, howzabout writing the bio-verbiage for my website? It'll be fun, we'll get some pizza and …"

Me: "Sounds great. I love pizza. But are you sure you can afford [what I charge]?"

Why? Several reasons. For one, as Jim Carrey says: "My quote is my quote." If you change it for one person, and word gets around, suddenly everyone will want the discount.

And as you mention in your question, while you're doing all that free or low-cost work for your brother-in-law's stepdaughter, you're using up hours or days (or, in your case, weeks, which I have to say is quite a shockingly chutzpah-riffic "ask") you could be devoting to paying clients.

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In effect, people looking for discounts are not only siphoning money out of your bank account, but also sucking up another precious commodity: your time. That's time you could be spending with your family, crossing items off your to-do list, doing charity work, or just sipping chardonnay in the sunshine.

Also, people respect what they have to pay for – usually in direct proportion to what they are paying. You should respect your own time and expertise; friends and family should, too.

Now, I'm aware my position might be considered a tad … draconian by some.

That people, especially once they're established, like to do favours for their friends and family.

If you do decide to go that route, all experts agree on these points: 1) be clear about expectations as to what work you're going to do for them, and your expectations about how much they'll be paying you (and when, don't forget when. Part of my Freelancer's Credo: "I'd rather be paid quickly than well"); 2) discuss it upfront.

None of this after-the-fact: "Uh, sorry I didn't mention this before, but you realize I have to charge you, right?" Or: "You're going to replace the siding on the garage, too, as part of the deal, right, good buddy?" That type of muddiness is the slippery slope down which perfectly good relationships can slide into muck and mire.

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True, it does sound as if you were pretty clear upfront. But you have to drop all these "diplomatic back channels" and "messengers" and wind-borne communications.

Speak directly to the person in question. Say something to the effect of: "I'm pleased you want to hire me. And I'm very happy to be able to make an exception to my normal rule and offer my services at a discount…"

Well, maybe you don't have to sound that bureaucratic. But make sure you pepper your comments with words such as "hire" and "services" to reinforce the notion that this is, at bottom (the bottom line), more business transaction than family favour.

And make it crystal clear that, money-wise, there is a threshold below which you can't go, or else it will hurt you. And why would anyone with your best interests at heart want to do that?

Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to damage@globeandmail.com. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.

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