5 Actionable Steps to Stop Living “Project to Project” as a Freelancer or Agency Owner

The rat race is real. Most employees in the working world live paycheck to paycheck. And I’d guess the same is true of the freelance and agency world, except it’s a “project to project” situation.

It works like this: You land a project, they pay you to do the work, you pay your bills, and there isn’t much left over at the end. If you want to keep eating, you must land another project and repeat the cycle.

It’s not a particularly enjoyable cycle, either. When work is slow, you starve. Steady work makes you feel happy and confident, but stress often overshadows that. And when demand is highest? You drown.

I lived this life as a freelancer and an agency owner for many years. I know exactly how the cycle happens, which decisions keep you stuck in its grasp, and the decisions you must take to escape.

It’s not easy, but if you can do the following five things, you will find your work more fulfilling, have a better working relationship with clients, and dramatically improve your financial security.

This is your four to six month escape plan:

Step #1: Start charging for every deliverable (no more charity work)

ux design deliverable

If you don’t have money left over at the end of every project, you’ll always live project-to-project. The math doesn’t work any other way.

How do you get more money? Most people say, “Raise your prices.” And yes, that’s an important step we’ll discuss later, but there’s a more important first step.

Instead of rushing to raise your rates, start charging for the deliverables you’re not currently charging for.

Novel concept, I know. For some reason, many freelancers and agency owners like to do free work. Charity work, if you will. And if you’re living project-to-project, that needs to stop.

If you find yourself “throwing things in” during the sales process just to appease the client or land the deal, you’re doing charity work.

If you allow too many rounds of revisions and iteration, you’re doing charity work.

If you add extra functionality after a client call or an email exchange, you’re doing charity work.

If you do extra work to “make things work” after a planned iteration presents additional challenges, you’re doing charity work.

If you’re not charging for project management, you’re doing charity work.

You can’t afford to do all this. This is why you’re living project-to-project!

If you want more money left over at the end of a project, stop willingly doing free work.

Action step #1: Audit your current or next project and write down every task you find yourself doing that you didn’t explicitly bill for.

Example: “Built a contact form for the contact page and forgot to bill for the form creation. Also added two extra fields and some conditional logic and email routing the client wanted that we hadn’t discussed.”

Action step #2: Commit to billing for work like that on the next project.

Note: This might require being more granular in how you scope projects. If you want to see how I do it, I have a training lesson covering project scoping and pricing and my full price list in the Inner Circle.

Step #2: Implement “change orders” to eliminate or profit from scope creep

empty notecard

A lot of free work is “hidden,” which you can reveal with a deliverables audit. Once you uncover all the hidden work you’re doing free of charge, you can start charging for that work going forward.

Another common cause of free work is scope creep, which should be obvious. Scope creep is when the client asks for additional work or major changes you didn’t discuss previously.

To stop living project-to-project, you must change how you view scope creep. This is a mental shift from “I hate scope creep” (what most people say) to “I don’t mind when a client attempts scope creep.”

People hate scope creep because they don’t have a plan for it. Thus, they get sucked into doing free work. I don’t mind scope creep because I have a plan for handling it. If the scope creep happens, I make more money. If it doesn’t happen, then we’re back to where we started, no sweat off my back.

The plan to handle scope creep is called a change order. It’s very simple.

  1. The client requests changes or additional work
  2. A change order is created with the cost of the new work
  3. The client accepts or rejects the change order

A change order is just a form that lists the new requests, the amount they’ll cost, and the effect on the timeline. If the client signs it, you do the extra work and make more money. If the client rejects it, the project continues as previously discussed.

It’s easy to implement, eliminating the free work issue and the negative emotions surrounding scope creep. You can probably find some examples of change order forms online, but I posted the exact one I use in the Inner Circle.

Step #3: Stop using a milestone payment structure

hilly paved road through a forest

“Milestone payments” are a common payment structure in the freelance and agency world. Here’s an example of a typical milestone payment structure:

  • 25% upfront
  • 50% at the halfway mark
  • Final 25% after launch

I’m quite surprised that this payment structure is so popular because it’s a terrible arrangement and badly affects cash flow, total revenue, and timelines.

It’s such a bad payment structure that I wrote a detailed 1800-word article on how milestone payments don’t make sense for web design projects. Instead of rehashing all that here, I encourage you to read that and implement the recommended changes to your payment structure.

Step #4: Raise your prices by 50% in four increments

cash money

We’ve finally arrived at the “increase your prices” step. This is the step you’ve probably heard before, so I will ensure there’s a little more meat on the bone for you to chew on.

Most creatives price wrong. They use one of the following models:

  • Cost-Plus Pricing: Add up expenses and add markup.
  • “Feels Good” Time-Based Pricing: Choose an hourly rate that feels good.
  • Competitive Pricing: See what your competitors charge and charge a little less.

None of these are any good for creative work.

For starters, anything based on an hourly rate reduces you to a commodity and is patently unfair to creatives. Why? Because a talented creative can do something in an hour that an unskilled person wouldn’t be able to create ever, even when given an unlimited timeframe.

There’s an inherent value in what certain creatives can do. There’s also a massive variance in value to the business depending on what they want and need. If a task is more valuable to a business, we should charge more to handle that task.

You’ll often hear this pricing philosophy referred to as “value-based pricing,” but I don’t advocate for a pure value-based model. Instead, I prefer a model that takes the following into account:

  1. Profit
  2. Time
  3. Expenses
  4. Marketing
  5. Value

Notice that profit is first. This is because I follow the Profit First philosophy of business and accounting. It’s a truly game-changing model, but that’s already been covered elsewhere.

The bottom line is that most creatives’ pricing is too myopic. This is why you rarely have any money left over at the end of a project and need to race to land the next one.

We don’t need to do a master class on pricing to start to turn things around for you. The action step is simple: raise your prices by 50% in four increments.

Look at your average deliverables for your average project. If that average project price is $2,500 for those deliverables, you will start charging $3,750 for the same deliverables.

You don’t need to make this jump overnight (though you certainly can). If you’d rather increase incrementally, here are the steps:

Increment #1: Profit Increase (10%)

Regarding the Profit First philosophy, the first increase you’ll make is a 10% increase for immediate profitability. At a $2500 project price, this will put $250 directly into a “profit” account you won’t touch. You can watch my Profit First training if you want to know what that account is for and why we’re doing this.

This isn’t a ton, but it adds up quickly as you complete project after project. And, of course, if a project comes in at a higher price, you’ll add bigger chunks of profit. A $7500 project would add $750.

This is a mandatory change you need to make immediately.

Increment #2: Contract Help Increase (15%)

To be a true business and not a glorified job, you need to begin to remove yourself from specific work in the business. For example, if you currently do UX, UI, and dev for every project, you need to find someone to take over one of those three things (the one you’re least good at).

You can’t do that with your current pricing, or you’ll go broke. But you can easily do it if you charge accordingly. That’s what this 15% increase is for.

Really, this needs to be 30%, but you might not be comfortable with a 30% jump from one project to the next. So, do 15% for this project and continue tackling all tasks independently. Then…

Increment #3: Second Contract Help Increase (15%)

…Make the second 15% increase allocated to contract help as well. Now you have an extra 30% that you can use to pay someone else, and it takes no additional money out of your pocket.

The projects you used to charge $2500 for are now billed at $3250. You now have $750 to hand over to a developer, for example, to take a big chunk of development off your plate.

“Kevin, that’s not enough!”

Exactly! So tell me why you’re charging $2500 for a web design project.


Congratulations, you just bought back your time, something all smart business owners are adamant about doing whenever possible! This is the first step toward “working on your business instead of in your business.”

Increment #4: Marketing Increase (10%)

The last increase you need to make is dedicated to marketing and growth. All businesses need consistent marketing to grow and thrive. You tell your clients this, but if you’re like most creatives, you don’t follow your own advice.

Why not? Because you can’t afford it!

It’s a simple fix, though. A 10% increase on a $2500 project gives you 250 dollars to push directly into marketing.

“Kevin, that’s nothing. That won’t even buy a decent Google Ad for a month.”

Thank you! So tell me again why you’re charging $2500 for a web design project.

The point should be clear, though, that what you charge for Project A needs to fund the acquisition of Project B. Marketing isn’t a cost you have to absorb – it’s a planned expense covered by your standard pricing.

The easiest way to make these increases is project-by-project. Every next project you land should have the increase baked into it.

You’ll be in much better financial shape once you make these four incremental increases.

Step #5: Set a project minimum & stick to it no matter what

price tag

This will probably be the hardest tip to implement because it will appear to cause a direct hit to cash flow as you turn down some projects. You won’t want to do it, but you have to.

See, most creatives fall into the trap of saying “Yes” to the next dollar, regardless of whether it makes economic sense. “I need this project! I have to pay my bills!” they scream.

But taking a $1500 project isn’t the answer to paying bills. It isn’t the answer to growth and freedom, either. It’s the exact behavior that keeps you stuck in the cycle.

As you saw in the last tip, you probably objected to the $750 we allocated to contract help, the $250 we allocated to profit, and the $250 we allocated to marketing.

If those numbers seem small for those things, it’s because they are! This proves that $2500 is an insane price to charge for the kind of work we do. And, more importantly, for the level of value we provide to businesses.

You can’t sustain a business on $250 in marketing dollars and $250 in profit, and $750 for contract help. And you can’t rely on volume to help because “volume” and “creative” don’t go well together.

Trying to solve money issues with volume increases is a perfect recipe for burnout, divorce, or both.

Given this fact, you must start rejecting projects that don’t make economic sense. If the math doesn’t math, you have to say, “No.” And the math doesn’t math at $2500 for a website, my friend.

Alas, you need to make the pricing adjustments we discussed earlier, consider the value baked into your work, and arrive at a project minimum that makes more sense.

Next, you must commit to yourself that you’ll never take a project that isn’t at least equal to your minimum. No matter how badly you need the money. No matter what bill needs to be paid. No matter what emergency springs up.

Why? Because every time you say “Yes” to a project that doesn’t make sense, you say “No” to one that does. If you don’t have any other opportunities, you’re saying “No” to finding one. Remember, this below-minimum project doesn’t actually help you. The hole you’re in doesn’t get smaller. It doesn’t even stay the same size. It gets deeper.

The only way out of your hole is to take projects that at least pay your project minimum. You must spend every waking minute finding and landing those opportunities. Nothing else gets in the door.

What about recurring revenue?

Most advisors would encourage you to add recurring revenue sources to your business as quickly as possible. Website management fees, marketing retainers, etc., are all popular examples of recurring revenue in the agency world.

While this is a smart strategy, it doesn’t fix the common problems that are inherent in project-to-project businesses. I believe the problems discussed throughout this article are gaping wounds requiring immediate suturing. Adding recurring revenue is like getting more blood transfused while the gashes continue to bleed out.

So, yes, add recurring revenue. But make sure you do the other five actionable items first.


Living project-to-project isn’t fun, and it’s bad for your clients, too. Clients don’t want a creative who is always distracted by financial problems and chasing the next dollar.

In fact, knowing this can help you break down some of the mental barriers that cause financial issues in the first place. It’s easier to raise prices, issue change orders, charge for every deliverable, and set project minimums when you realize your clients need you to be successful and financially secure.

I’ll expand on that as my final point. Most financial problems in business are caused by mental and emotional roadblocks. You charge too little and make too many concessions because of how you think about money and value your work.

It’s simple to fix, but not always easy. If you can take the outlined steps, you’ll be in a much better place. Good luck!

join the conversation


  • Thanks, Kevin. I just revisited the article today and I’m reminded again to price higher (which I did over the past 12 months)

    Just wondering, do you implement the minimum price for friends and family who “don’t have the budget”? Or do you stick to your minimum price and tell them, “Sorry, we can’t go below this price”?


  • Abdul Waheed

    Hi Kevin!
    Honestly I don’t have words to write coz I don’t know where to start.
    Well, I’m working with WordPress from 2020 and you know I charge between $80 to $150 for static website and $200 to $300 for a dynamic website.

    I have tons of questions about this blog post. I’m from Pakistan and I see everyone here wants a developer who is willing to work for pennies.

    I’m not just talking about the startups who have tight budget for the website, I’m talking about almost everyone even if they are running a decent business.

    I think it’s all about the poor mindset. They think there are saving their budget by hiring a cheap developer for their website.

    And this is the community where I belong to.

    I even tried asking for a little higher price to European clients but they wanted the same. (Cheap developer and high quality website lol)
    I don’t even have an idea from where I’m lacking, what I’m doing wrong?

    I have another question, as you said in your post that we should stop doing charity work and start charging for those things.
    Could you please post another article for what should we discuss with a client before starting a project?

    Because if a client wants a website with contact us page, he obviously needs a contact form too.

    And there are plenty of small things that I never discuss before starting a project and I need to do them for free after delivering the project. (Because client says he was expecting this and bla bla)

    For example, I never discussed about what input fields he wants on the contact form.

  • Great tips. I’m still not where I want to be but following your advice over the past year has drastically increased my profits and the quality work I’m able to do for clients. It really is win-win.

  • Ben Bruno

    Good stuff. I started implementing this pricing structure (not the exact one) but stopped selling $2500 websites. In fact, few years back, I was building templated websites for $750. I was very busy, but could never seem to really get ahead. And the scope creep was tough to stop.

    I increased my prices, stopped building so many sites. Less busy but have more $$. I no longer get 90% of the jobs I quote. One thing I also implemented is the really quick pre qualifying clients. Saves a lot of time and energy and I can quickly qualify the clients that are willing to spend the money for quality design.

  • Great article! Thanks! You have many good points.

  • totally agree, but if we keep saying ‘no’ to every cheap project, we’ll never eat. at least here in italy.
    90% of web designers sell stuff for like 400, while big companies charge tons and tons for stuff they should just shot themself for. search for ‘open to meraviglia’ shameful tourism campaign, and have fun. 9 millions of public money trashed, and it0s not the first time, while we professionals struggle to find clients accepting a minimum 2000 for an e-commerce.
    what i learned is that there is no real culture in italy for communication, design, creativity, and no money to invest in these fields. if any of your readers can show me i’m wrong, i’ll be happy to quit my 22 years job and start a new career making ice creams.

    • Hi Kappe, I’m from Italy too… what you’re saying is true…. sad but true 🙁 I add that the perception of our job is different when you move to another country… like an artist or musicians… I wonder how this happens… I try to follow and apply to many Geary’s tips but I see the market is different from the USA, yes it’s right: design and web are all over and could work from everywhere with everybody but reality is that there is a lot of competition and when you try to apply to some request… the cheapest proposal most of times wins… If I should stop I can come to help you with ice cream 🙂

    • A

      There are people in the U.S. who say similar things, but it’s clearly not true here. I can’t speak to the market in Italy, but I do know that web design is a global industry and you’re not limited in any way to Italian clients.

      • The last is true. We are in a global industry. But… There is a HUGE but, for me.

        Language and cultural barriers are there!

        If you are pretending to position yourself as an expert of just a tiny part of the whole project, like for example: 3D artist, motion graphics, illustration, UI design… I think there is no problem if you are not proficient in English and/or the culture from that country.

        Probably you won’t be dealing directly with the client. Maybe with an agency that contracts several freelances to do parts of the whole project. Or yes, maybe with the client! But they have chosen you because they know you as a freelance are good at some specific skill they need, so who cares if your English is not perfect.

        BUT if you are positioned as an agency, and in your country you land projects that go from Strategy, Copywriting to UI/UX Design and then Development, then I think you must have some sort of high level of English and know the culture from the USA – if that’s your target country – if you want to land the same type of projects, but overseas.

        So, in my opinion, the more you are focused on some specific skill, the higher are the chances you can work with some agency or company in the US.

        In my mind, it does not make any sense that some company from the USA would like to hire an agency in Spain / Italy / France to create a whole new website, from strategy, copywriting to design and development if their customer base is in the US and you can’t understand as a native would do their market.

        Hopes someone proves me wrong!

    • It’s also something I thought, as I’m based in France and it’s not as common as in the States to find clients willing to pay over 2000 € for a regular website. It seems to me that the prices aren’t the same overseas!
      Otherwise, these are very good and valuable tips Kevin thanks!

      • I am from Spain, and although I have sold websites between 4000 and 6000 €, the majority are around 3000 – 4000 €. And sometimes, it is even hard for clients to understand the value of those prices.

        For sure there are companies capable to pay 10K, 20K € for a website, but I think that here (Spain, France, Italy…) those kinds of companies are BIG companies, while in the USA maybe these are more midsized companies, even small ones.

        Besides, those big companies aren’t willing to work with small agencies. If they are going to spend over 20K € on a website, they will look for, at least, a midsized company. Then, small studios or freelances are left only with small companies with crap budgets.

        I focus on working with B2B industries or, if they happen to be B2C business, they need to be not “traditional” brick-and-mortar type of business. It is where I find easier to land projects over 5000 €. I made myself the promise to avoid all kind of restaurants, bars, gyms, little shops… They just want a website because “every one has one”, and rarely want to pay more than 2000 €.

        There is a lack of culture and education on digital design, and website creation. Also in UI and UX. I find myself educating prospects and clients all the time. And of course Wix, Squarepace and even Themeforest WordPress Templates have been setting a wrong mindset for our potential clients.

        That being said, I must admit I have been raising our rates at every project for some months, and we are doing really great. I need to implement the “change order” approach, because scope creep is still the most difficult thing to deal with, for me.

        But, yeah, I also think that the prices usually Kevin refers to have to be something easier to achieve in the USA market. Or, at least, I would love to talk to someone in Spain / France / Italy that is charging more than 10.000 € for a website, regularly. We need more references from where we live and this is really difficult to find, as the majority of the content creators are from overseas!

        Kevin, maybe you can start making YouTube interviews of different types of freelancers / creatives from all over the world! So we can get a closer look at the reality of the countries where your followers are. It is just an idea 🙂

        POS: I have checked the “Open To Meraviglia” website… And what a shame! :O

        • Hey Isaura,
          are you doing Content-Marketing already to educate your leads?

          The better your Content, the higher your trust, expertise, and value.
          Raising prices alone is, in my opinion, not really applicable, you need to present your expertise through content. This also reduces questions in the sales process/cycle.

          Have you recognized, how many content/videos companies create that take high pricing? Kevin does not mention it in this article because it is only about the mindset shift. But you can never watch it just from that angle. You have to watch it holistic. That’s why content makes so much sense and is so important for raising the prices.

          I am in the german market and I also missed to create enough content in the beginning, so I totally understand all the struggles that come with low pricing and its mostly hidden causes.

          Kind regards,

          • I don’t think it is a problem of content-marketing. There is something much more profound. Here in Spain there is a culture that everything can be cheap, fast and good. You just need to ask for and someone will do it this way.

            I set my agency apart from this positioning since the day one. And we are doing pretty well, don’t get me wrong! We have no problem to position ourselfs as an expert on our field, and translate our expertise to any prospect I have a sales call with.

            They usually understand the value we provide, and also that we are offering a higher quality product (website) that the average professional around, because we care of aesthetics but also UX, we care of clean code, scalability and maintainability, accessibility and SEO… Things that the average agency really does not care.

            But the problem is that the culture here is to not care, either.

            “If I can find someone cheaper, why not do it?”

            People are short-sighted. Better to save 2000 € today and not care if my future self will suffer the consequences?

            Different cultures, different markets and different mindsets! But hey, always working on improving and with the confidence that in some place there are businesses that do care of well-done projects and value what we do! So far we have found some of them here, so we will keep exploring the land 🙂

  • Thank you Kevin!
    I know you went in-depth inside the Inner Circle to fix this for all, as it’s mandatory for all freelancers, and agencies…
    Having it explained here much helpful.

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Kevin Geary

Kevin is the CEO of Digital Gravy, creator of Automatic.css, creator of Frames, and a passionate WordPress educator. If you're interested in learning directly from Kevin, you can join his 1500+ member Inner Circle.

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