The Side Business Question: What Is Your Time Worth?

Bob writes in:

I’m in my mid twenties, worked doing tech support all through college, and worked out of college as the IT director for a political campaign of 120 staffers. I now have left to a job that fits my interests a little bit better, but clearly still have a lot of IT skills.

I haven’t been doing any IT work on the side, but the friend of a coworker of mine needs some computer help. I’m perfectly happy to help her. What I really want is money, but I feel awkward asking for it. I’m not in debt, I’m pretty healthy financially, but money is preferred just because I want to spend it on what I want, rather than just asking for a general category of gift (bottle of scotch, etc). Any advice on how best to explain that I charge a certain rate and not feel bad about it? (Her fix is pretty easy for someone with my background, hence the guilt)

The best approach in this situation is to decide what you want in advance, then be up front and clear about it. Communication never fails to be a winner in any situation and the earlier you communicate your needs, the better. You should communicate what you want at the earliest possible juncture in this so that there’s never any chance of there being a misunderstanding of the arrangement.

The secondary question, of course, is whether or not you should feel guilty about doing this.

There’s one big thing to keep in mind whenever you provide this kind of service or any kind of service: people are paying you to provide a service they can’t – or are unwilling to – do for themselves. You are providing some sort of expertise or trait that they’re not bringing to the table, whether it’s knowledge of leverage for moving a piano, arm strength for digging a lily pool, or IT skills for solving a computer problem.

To them, the skill you have has value. Quite often, it has significant value.

What value? It doesn’t matter what you think that skill is worth. It matters what they think the skill is worth. That amount is what the person receiving that service is willing to play. In other words, it’s set by the marketplace – if there are fifty plumbers in a city, they all charge similar rates, for example.

Another factor to remember is that you are selling your spare time. That time has significant value – you have a limited quantity of it and it’s often the only time you have for leisure and recreation. When you fill that time with tasks that you don’t want to be doing, you deserve some sort of compensation for it.

Thus, I would check around in the community and find out what the going rate for the type of service you’re going to provide is, then provide the service at that rate or a slightly lower one. After all, that is the price they would pay for that service in the broader marketplace.

You may decide that a lower rate for family and friends is appropriate and, if that’s the case, reduce the rate you charge to benefit that person. Should you provide that kind of rate reduction? That’s up to you, but if you are providing that rate, make it clear up front and on any receipts or invoices you provide just to keep matters clear for the future.

On the other hand, there is some value in providing the service pro bono, particularly if the service isn’t too stressful for you. This can have an enormous social benefit – it often opens the door to a long exchange of value on both sides of the coin, from work opportunities to assistance with tasks and advice. There is a great deal of value in following this path and, quite honestly, it’s probably the path I would follow in this case.

Good luck in whatever you choose.

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