How My Sliding Scale Taught Me Not to Fear Scarcity

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We carry deep money fears. It’s practical — I get it, I feel it, I’ve got it. For each of us there is a number, roughly, that we know we need to conjure up each month to keep on lights, to eat, to avoid scary letters in the mail from the IRS, and keep the bottom of our budget sheets nice and green so we can retire one day. Because of this, when we work, perhaps especially for ourselves, we start to think of all the aspects of our work in terms of money. Our time is money. Our speed is money. The quantity we can produce is money. The quality we can improve is money. The number of times or the length of time that someone can use our creations is money.

In our back pocket, we always carry this invisible, heavy money coin. On the first side of that coin, we think of all that we are potentially worth. On the other side, we hold our fear of scarcity. The risk of being undervalued, underpaid, and perhaps most terrifying… unsustainable.

Sliding scales don’t make sense when the fear of being undervalued is on and running. The concept depends on trust between the person setting the value and the person assessing their ability to match that value, to the highest possible degree. And everyone loves a discount. So if you give someone the option of no discount or a discount, they’re always going to go for the biggest discount, right?

Yesterday, I had a phone call with a potential client from a large organization. “How does your pricing work,” she asked. “Well,” I explained, “It depends a good deal on the context of the project. I give all of my clients a quote specifically for their scope of work. I have an hourly rate — but projects of certain sizes allow some flexibility.” I explained that pricing a one-page flyer is a little different than a 20-page annual report, which is a little different than creating 20 custom illustrations. “I also have a sliding scale,” I said.

“Oh,” this woman said, and now I’m paraphrasing, but her response was along the lines of, “Well we’re a nonprofit but we’re very well established — a sliding scale really wouldn’t be appropriate for us to take advantage of.”

I smiled on my end of the phone. It still surprises me a little bit when I get these kinds of replies. Because in my mind, yes, if you give someone the option of a discount or no discount, they're just going to take discount, right? But in my experience, that’s just not what happens.

My sliding scale goes from 70% to 100%. The little one-sheet that I rarely even send out these days articulates that 100% is the value I assign to the work I provide, and then it shows a line extending backwards to two notches at 85% and 70%. Underneath each potential price point, it offers a list of considerations for whether this level of discount might appropriately apply to this person or organization.

At the lowest rung of the sliding scale the list suggests that if you have no or limited expendable income, for example, this is an appropriate discount for you. In the middle, stressing about financial needs but being able to meet them regularly is an example that indicates less of a discount might fit you. And at the top, having access to savings or grant money is a clue that you may not really need a discount at all.

I round off my sliding scale document with notes about why I find it meaningful to work with folks on every stage of this scale. Full value payments match the value of the work I provide and help me to be able to work with folks who can’t pay full value at this time. That middle area of payment helps me to cover my costs and sustain my life as I work. And the heaviest discounted work I do is a way that my clients and myself show support for each other’s gifts and passions and missions.

But as I said, I rarely send this sheet out anymore. Altogether, I’ve probably only sent it out once or twice. When I’ve gotten on the phone, or spoken to someone face to face, I’ve encountered an inherent understanding. My clients and prospective clients seem to get where all of this is coming from, and honor it from their standpoint.

I had a doula client reach out to me once too, because she and her partners’ budget had shifted in the time between committing to work with me and having our second prenatal appointment. They had initially decided to pay full value, but now looking at the numbers, that investment felt unwise. On the phone, I acknowledged my sliding scale. “Let me know what your budget will allow now, let me know what you’d like in services, and we’re going to figure this out, through me and whatever other community resources if necessary.”

She got back to me with a number that was still not the lowest option of my sliding scale, and suggested I have less sessions with them — “I in no way want to undercut you,” she wrote in a text. With sincere appreciation for her consideration, I replied, “That number is perfectly fine and we’re still doing all the sessions!”

I’ve been in all of these categories as a consumer myself. I’ve paid all, I’ve paid some, I’ve paid a little. They’ve all been beautiful experiences in their own contexts.

I don’t know what I can say to fully express that value, to me, is not based in dollars. Value is the impact something has, its reach, its usefulness, how it makes someone feel or what it allows them to fully experience.

That said, my sliding scale decision is based on my context, on some of the privileges I have. I have some savings – not a lot, but some. That helps me to do this. I have some debt – but not a lot. And that helps me to do this. I also design largely for birth and nonprofit folks. It's an altruistic industry, filled with people and organizations who love collaborating with small business people like myself, and creating and building community with their business decisions. That’s not true of every industry. That helps me to do this.

So I get it. It’s not going to be the best fit for every entrepreneur, and not in every season of their working life. I’m sure I will continue to shift and evolve my model over time, too, but I'll never let go of the lessons I'm learning in this current season. And you'll never catch me making my decisions solely on the money.

The bottom line is, I don't want to operate my business and implement my pricing out of a scarcity mindset. That would get in the way of making real connections with the people I work with, and having honest conversations that dignify us all as members of a common community — however near or far we may be, however hands-on or intangible the work may be. If that appeals to you as well, consider applying a sliding scale. Sliding scale pricing is a beautiful way to literally put your money where your mouth is, and use that mouth to say, "This is way more about you and us and what we're working towards, than it is about the dollars."

Extra: I think it's worth noting that my clients self-select where they fall on the sliding scale. I do not choose for them. For my records, I also invoice all my work at 100% with whatever level of discount applied, so I can keep track of how much discounting I do in a year (just started this, so this will be the first year I have that info!).