It’s a common question, maybe the most common, right after ‘How Much Should I Charge?’ While there is no firm consensus on exactly what freelancers should bill for, there are generally accepted practices.
Initial Consultation- No
If you know a freelancer who charges for initial consultations, you probably know a freelancer who has no clients. It’s a nearly universal practice to give a free consultation to clients, because it acts almost as an interview. Clients can size up freelancers to see if they would be a good fit, while freelancers learn more about the project so they can decide if it interests them.
Project Planning- Yes
Initial consultations aside, project planning should be billed for. For short, simple projects it may not be worth it to bill for the time it takes you to create a plan for a project, but on longer or more complex projects, planning may represent a significant amount of time. Some things you may run into are: creation of a creative brief or other ‘discovery’ with a client, pre-production for photo or video, planning meetings with the client, brainstorming and ideation of concepts and premises.
Contracting and Negotiations- No
It would be an extremely weird price negotiation if a client knew they were being billed for it. The same goes for the creation, negotiation, and signing of contracts. These are part of those ‘must-do’ things for which you can’t bill.
Equipment Rental- Yes
For personal gear, some crew chooses to build it into their hourly or daily price, while some chooses to separate their time from equipment costs. There is no ‘best’ method for personal gear. But for equipment that needs to be rented from an outside source, the cost should passed on to the client. The accepted rule is to pass on the cost exactly, with no markup.
Direct Expenses- Yes
Direct expenses are any expenses that you incur throughout a project. Things like domain registrations, props for a photo or video shoot, and assets for a website, design project, or video. This does not include things like: software, lunch, and new equipment.
Travel can be divided into 3 categories-
- Under ~30 minutes of travel time is just a commute, and is not billable
- Over ~30 minutes of travel time to a location that is still drivable in a day (usually ~3 hours or under) can be billed for, but many crew choose to eat the time so they can compete better on price with crew more local to the location. Here in southern California, many freelancers will travel between San Diego and LA at no cost to expand their client base. A good compromise is to not charge for the travel time, but to request a hotel room for multiple day projects.
- For projects that are not drivable in a day, travel should be billed for. Expenses, like airline tickets and lodging should be billed at cost, and a per diem for food is fairly common- usually between $50 and $70. Mid range hotels are the norm and crew traveling together are typically not expected to bunk together. Most freelancers bill their time at 50% for travel days.
Compiling/Rendering/Exporting- Most of the Time
It has gotten better in recent years, but coders, editors, motion graphic artists and animators still spend a fair deal of time waiting for their systems to complete a task. In general this time should be billed. However, for things like overnight renders, great for batch exports and those 12 After Effects comps that need to be updated, you do not bill the time. If you’re not sure which category your render falls under, use the on-site test. If you were editing on-site on a client’s machine, would you need to wait for this render to finish to keep working? If the answer is yes, bill for it. If you’d be able to set it and leave the office for the day, don’t bill for it. Regardless, in all cases it is the freelancer’s obligation to the client to minimize billable down time to the best of their ability.
Product Delivery- Yes
When a client needs something physically delivered, usually because they need an external drive with more than just a deliverable and/or they don’t understand how the internet works, it’s common to offer them the choice of paying full retail for an external drive and keeping it, or not paying for the drive and returning it. In the former instance, the client pays for delivery and in the latter, the client pays for delivery and return.
In the end, it comes down to the individual to decide how they want to bill clients, but there is one guideline that everyone should follow across the board: no surprises. It matters far less what you choose to bill for than that your client is aware how they will be billed. However you choose to go about it, make sure that you include your costs- all of your costs- in your estimate.