Bill Your Writing Client When You Spill Coffee? Maybe

by Anne Wayman

freelance writing coffeeI just spilled a freshly brewed cup of coffee on my kitchen counter. (Why does a cup of coffee spilled seem more like a gallon? Sigh.)

As I was mopping up this thought came to me: Good thing I’m not billing by the hour at the moment; I’d lose  the 15 minutes it’s taking me to clean up.

I continued to sop up the coffee and squeeze the sponge, and mop some more, and I remembered a time I had a non-writing job where I was paid by the hour. Sure enough, once I spilled a cup of coffee in the communal kitchen. As I recall it took at least 15 minutes, maybe more, because I also had to mop some off the floor. I wasn’t docked that time from my hourly pay.


Then I remembered when I was on salary writing for long-gone Kaypro Computers. No one there was every fired or had their pay cut because they spilled coffee or anything else. We were expected to clean up the mess, but the company paid for the time. It wasn’t an issue.

In fact, when I look back on the various times I’ve worked jobs, I’ve never worked every minute of the eight hour day. Not even back in the day when I was waiting tables at busy coffee shops. I suspect this is true for almost everyone. There’s always some downtime in any job. Sometimes it’s official. More often, I suspect, it’s not.

Down time isn’t always bad

That down time isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sure I wasn’t being productive while cleaning up the coffee I spilled, or was I? After all, the counter is clean and I had the idea for a whole new blog post for freelance writers. (I am one who says ideas are everywhere.)

All this points to the real reason I like charging flat fees rather than hourly rates. I mean how would I bill a client for the time I spent both cleaning up a spill and having an idea?

Easy does it

What I’m really driving at in this round about way is to suggest you don’t have to drive yourself insane trying to track every moment you spend writing for a client.


Sure, you need to be honest and fair and maybe even generous with your client.

You also need to treat yourself fairly and well.

Track your time, and know that it won’t be 100 percent accurate. And it doesn’t need to be. You need to know about how much time you’re actually working and, if you’re charging by the hour, so does the client.

Am I suggesting you charge the client for the time it takes to clean up spilled coffee? Probably not. I am suggesting, however, that you relax a bit and be gentle with yourself. Both you and your writing, and therefore your client, will be better off for it.

What do you think? Do you charge by the hour? If you do, what do you do about the unexpected interruptions? If you charge flat fees, do you build in some extra time for the surprises? Tell us about it in comments.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Lori January 8, 2013 at 5:28 am

Anne, only you could make a successful post out of spilled, er, coffee. :)

You make a good point — do we charge for bathroom breaks, trips to the mailbox, kitchen, etc? I tend to hit the project timer and stop the clock, but maybe I should only if it’s a lunch break?

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annew January 8, 2013 at 4:47 pm

Ah, not only me for sure? Really? When to hit the timer is a personal decision. I so seldom bill by the hour anymore… maybe something like if you’re going to be gone for 5 minutes or more? Trips to the mail box is, imo, business! Sorting out a kitty fight isn’t. ;)

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Kimberly Jones January 4, 2013 at 9:20 am

I too quote by the project. I find clients tend to appreciate knowing exactly what they’re going to have to pay. Tracking my time was taking too much of my time ;0

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annew January 4, 2013 at 10:20 am

I track my time using toggl.com just so I know how I’m spending it.

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Cathy Miller January 4, 2013 at 7:54 am

Not punching a clock is one of the best things about freelancing. I always bill by project fee. Occasionally, I have work with clients who are required to quote an hourly fee and max for services that go outside the scope of the project. I’m fine with that, but I would not take an assignment that pays based solely on an hourly fee.

Good read, Anne.
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annew January 4, 2013 at 8:16 am

Cathy, I tend to agree. I do tell my clients, if they ask, that my flat fee is based on an hourly rate… then I explain I don’t want to charge them for a mistake I make that takes an hour or so to fix, and that I do want to be paid for the inspiration I have in the shower that makes the project sing. That explanation seems to work well.

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John Soares January 4, 2013 at 6:34 am

Anne, I always quote by the project, not by the hour.

I do have a project right now that pays by the hour, but they also gave me the total number of hours they expect the project to take, so that’s what I’m billing, even though I’ll get done sooner.
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annew January 4, 2013 at 7:43 am

Yeah, I love it when a project takes less time than I planned for… I figure it’s a bonus of some sort… and that can work on hourly projects as well.

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jorgekafkazar January 4, 2013 at 6:15 am

Then there was the project where, halfway through, our computers started to catch a macro virus. We had to spend hours cleaning it off. And it kept coming back. (MS Word’s mediocre defaults make it easy to keep a virus going, a topic for another comment sometime.) Just as we got it cleaned up, someone opened the original file from the client’s disk, and BOOM, there it was again. We’d spent hours cleaning up a virus that the client had shipped to us in the first place. Fortunately, by then, we’d fixed MS so it wouldn’t save the template file without permission. Every active project had been affected, and there was no way to bill all that time to the client who sent the virus.
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annew January 4, 2013 at 7:42 am

What a nightmare! And yes, sometimes we just have to eat it, don’t we.

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Amandah January 4, 2013 at 5:34 am

I like to bill by the project; I’m good about figuring in my time for a lunch break (if I take one) and other breaks. I’m committed to sitting down and completing my projects, but life happens. Sometimes, I’ll need to rearrange my schedule due to a family situation, or my volunteer commitments. Either way, I get the job done. :)
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annew January 4, 2013 at 7:41 am

“Life happens” is so very true, Amandah. And yes, all those are reasons I too like flat fees per project.

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Julie M. Rodriguez January 3, 2013 at 8:30 pm

This is exactly why I’m so relieved to have a salaried copywriting job right now. If I’m feeling a little burned out and need to take 15 minutes off I can. There’s a lot less pressure and it makes it a lot easier to focus on writing well.
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annew January 4, 2013 at 7:40 am

Julie, sometimes salaried jobs make a whole lot of sense… glad you’ve got one you like.

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Greg January 3, 2013 at 4:57 pm

Great post, Anne. Just the kind of thing I needed to read right now. I’ve been thinking about this, how most jobs have down time and mine doesn’t, and realizing I need to make time for breaks. You can’t sit and write for 8 straight hours. No reason to push yourself to do anything insane like that.

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annew January 3, 2013 at 5:08 pm

Great minds, Greg… and your job has the flexibility to let you have the breaks your way.

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Greg January 3, 2013 at 8:25 pm

That is definitely one of the perks.

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Randi Jenkins January 3, 2013 at 3:37 pm

Let’s put it this way. If I’ve worked from 10am to 10pm, it’s been tempting to bill for 12 hours. But the 45 minutes I spent walking my dog? And the 30 minutes I spent having lunch? No way do I bill for this. Yes, I agree that we need to be easy on ourselves, but I’ve found that I always “win” by spending the client’s money as if it were my own.

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annew January 3, 2013 at 4:32 pm

Randi, that’s a good way to put it… spending the client’s money like it were your own.

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Carmen Rane Hudson January 3, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Oh now that’s a good thought–thanks, that makes me feel way more relaxed about billing by the hour…especially on scattered, interruption-filled, super ADD-Days like this one I’m having today.
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annew January 3, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Carmine… that’s exactly the result I wanted from readers… a bit of relaxation. And you don’t have to be ADD to have those days… witness mine today ;)

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