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Decorating for Family; How Much is too Much?

By 01/13/2011January 27th, 2017134 Comments

My youngest sister, her husband and two small children are moving even further into the country than they already are, Abbotsford to Yarrow. This is happening in February. And when they move they will need help decorating their house. The last time my sister moved (about 7 years ago) we spent many weekends over the years shopping and painting furniture together so that her house would be great.

Two of my sisters both love Blue Source
So that’s generous right? However, do I do all this in the true spirit of ‘freely-giving-without-expecting-anything-in-return’?

Nope.  I do not.

Do I expect my generosity to be reciprocated?

Yes I do.

Because in the end, if you’re a human being, you generally expect something–no one wants to always be the giver or the taker (maybe).  Anyone that is in a service oriented business eventually gets to the point where they have to draw boundaries when helping their family.

My mother is the only person who I will do anything for without expecting reciprocity because she is my mother. When I moved this summer, I ended up having a huge argument with my sisters because they did not come over to help me pack. And our conversations about this topic are always the same.  Where they resent me for feeling like they don’t have a choice, like they should jump when I need something because I have helped them sooooo much, they can never (in my world and theirs) do enough to pay me back. It doesn’t matter that they both have toddler age children—that excuse is not good enough 🙂

My sisters don’t want to feel like they always ‘owe me’ (and I get that) because it’s pretty hard to reciprocate enough when design advice is on-going and never-ending, we need a solution that works for us all.

My Chiropractor Brother-in-Law is actually pretty good at setting boundaries with family (and friends).  When he gets asked for advice, he lets people know that the appointment is free but that you need to schedule one with his receptionist and come see him in his office which I’m pretty sure cuts down the number of people that would take advantage of the offer down to family members.

My sister called me this a couple weeks ago in tears because she feels like she can’t ask me what kind of sofa she should buy or even discuss what the colours in her new house should be because she doesn’t want to have to deal with me getting cranky doing it for free. So yesterday when both of them (the other one is about to renovate her kitchen) said, “Is it okay that I’m asking you this?” I said “You guys are driving me nuts, yes already :)”

What do other designers do?  Well so far from the discussions I’ve had, the ‘free thing’ doesn’t work. Any designer who has been in the business for more than 10-15 years is at the point where they simply do not help their family anymore. It’s an easier way to maintain the relationship. And then there are no gray ‘I’m doing all the giving’ conversations to deal with. It’s fine if you only have one sibling, but I have three, and a mom and I’m the only one that got the (designer) creative gene.

So here’s my take on the whole thing. If I spend my time (for free) helping my sisters decorate their homes, this takes me away from my already paying clients, which doesn’t work for me. And if they come up with a budget, I can turn it into a great living room (even if it is IKEA) and still have my fees included. I’m sure my sister would rather have a ‘designer’ looking living room with a low to medium price point, rather than medium to high end furnishings purchased without understanding space planning, focal points, colour, scale, texture and balance.

And even after you buy all the right pieces, the look and feel which equals atmosphere doesn’t really enter the space until the accessories and lighting have been placed just right.

I love my sisters and I want them to have beautiful homes, so I’m torn. Bottom line, we’ve pretty much worked it out and basically, they are going to pay me because they get that this is my profession and I can’t work for free but it’s still uncomfortable because we are so close. And obviously every single casual conversation will not be billed.

So I’m putting it out there for your feedback too.  How do you handle designing (insert your service profession here) for your family?

If you would like your home to fill you with happiness every time you walk in, contact me.

Related posts:

A Bad Day in the Life of a Colour Designer
Ugly Costs the Same as Pretty
Why you should be Nice to your Suppliers

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  • Ann says:

    I can relate- family is always a tough one. With my sisters, if I do "official" work, they pay me (with their discount applied). I don't charge them for consults, though, but they respect my time and don't monopolize it. Discussing it is a good thing!


  • Patti Johnson, CID IDS says:

    Yes, this is a sticky issue. I have had relatives expect space planning for free and furnishings at cost. Here's what I did. I structured my company to a minimum of 15% over my cost for ANY product and a minimum design consultation fee for EVERYONE (my mom has passed away) This way when people/friends ask me for "favors" I can say, I'm sorry that's the way my company is set up and I can't change it. I don't want to do it for someone and then everyone expects it. Of course if someone wants me to pick a paint color, no big deal, happy to help. Good luck!

  • Gloria de Lourdes Blalock says:

    WOW…. Maria! I am so proud of you for taking on this subject!!! This is certainly a hard one!

    My problem isn't with family… since for the most part my younger brother is married to a designer, and my older brother is an artist and his house is done. However, my biggest problem is with my friends! I don't think that they 'get it' when I say there are fees involved with what I do. And I certainly believe that they don't understand that discounting merchandise puts me in an awkward situation. Overall… I have done it. BUT… I need to focus on restructuring this because the bottom line is always skewed when I do this. I guess I just feel 'guilty' when I don't… but that is a mind set that needs to change.

    Laura Jens always says… " Do you ask your doctor to see you for free, or discount his rates? How about your therpaist… would you ask any professional to give you a 'special discount'?" And to that end, you can insert any profession.

    I am so happy to ahve read this, and am planning to repost it on FB and also make a copy of it.
    I absolutely love it!!!

    Way to go on figuring out what works! I am sure that in the end… it will be a win-win for all involved : )

  • valleymom says:

    Personally I never charged for doing interior design consultations for family or close friends. I figured they don't occur all that often and the results could end up getting me a referral to several new clients. Can't put a price on word of mouth advertising. My husband owns his own business and takes the same approach for the same reason. Now if the same family or friends kept asking us for help over and over again in a shorter time frame… that would obviously change things. But once in 7 years? Once in 2 years? Free, for sure.

  • valleymom says:

    Oh, and also if we're doing it for free… it's on our time frame, not their's. So if it doesn't work into our schedule they have to wait – so it doesn't take away from paying clients. Unless they want to pay, then that changes things.

  • Dawn says:

    Oh. My. Goodness.

    I cannot even begin to imagine charging my family. Cannot even imagine.

    • Dolores says:

      I too would never put profit over family. In our family, we all share and profit by each others unique skills and talents, so I am sort of shocked that this topic would even come up.
      I would consider it an honor to help my sisters in any way possible.
      My sister, who is a design whizz, always offers to help with color and style direction, and I appreciate her efforts hugely. I would feel terrible if I asked for help, that in the back of her mind she would calculate the cost to her..
      That would be a game changer.

  • Grace @ Sense and Simplicity says:

    Such a tricky topic and good for you for bringing it out in the open. As a Speech-Pathologist I do get asked questions from friends about their children's speech and I'm happy to answer them. I am willing to make suggestions and give advice, but I know that the time involved to answer some questions would be a whole lot less than doing a days shopping together. If I've done therapy then I do it for a reduced rate. For me the more difficult issue is if I can see a problem and the friend or family memeber isn't asking. Then should I or should I not bring it up (I usually don't as I figure they would notice and could ask me if they wanted to, but it leaves me feeling uncomfortable).

  • Andrea says:

    In my family (I'm one of four girls), design advice comes ABSOLUTELY free. It's my family and it's a privilege to me that they admire my style enough to want my opinion. Purchases are at cost. Their homes will speak volumes for referrals. You are on a much higher, professional level than I am though, so that definitely comes in to play! Good luck with this sticky situation!!

  • ursula says:

    I am not a designer but have a great family – go help them and don’t complain – do only as much as you willing to do and have the time – not everything should be about money. Tell them straight out that you did last time so much and they should have learned from that and you just help with the final touches.

  • Anonymous says:

    My Dad is my worst client! He doesn't understand why you would pay someone to 'move your furniture'…AND… in the next breath… didn't hesitate to ask me to rework his living room for his new TV because 'that's what you do for a living'!!! Okay, that's Dad and like you with your mom, it's graciously done for free. But where Dad has crossed the line is – my cousin (who earns a very good 6-figure wage plus his wife's income) has just purchased a higher-end home (in N. Van) and Dad is offering up my services to stage their current home, and help with the renos on their new home… for FREE?!? How awkward can a situation be? Thanks so much Dad. I'm working hard to establish my business, to earn an income, never mind a living, and my Dad is trying to give my skills away for free! How does that work??? Family makes it tough to draw the line between 'helping' and 'taking the food right out of our mouth'… Here's to you Maria XO

  • mandarinastudio says:

    Kudos to you for bringing up this difficult situation. I have one sister who I have helped with her house on several occasions (I'm an interior designer). I've never charged her and probably never would. I"m happy to help but have definitely felt the feeling of "I'm always the giver". I remember in a Professional Practice class in design school, the instructor told us "Never design for free, not even for family, because they won't appreciate your expertise or take you seriously". I didn't listen to his advice but believe it holds true. Good luck with your sisters.

  • Stephanie says:

    I am going to have to disagree you that your sisters having toddlers is an excuse. I design for my family because I want to, maybe you just don't want to. I would NEVER charge a fee for my services to family, it just isn't right. I don't keep score when it comes to helping family members out like that. I agree with Andrea and valleymom 100%

  • Suzanne says:

    Here is a different perspective. My brother has amazing carpentry skills (built his own home). He let's me pick his brain and ask advice/guidace when I'm trying something new. Always on his time schedule.
    If I were to ever ask him to actually do a project for me I'd ask up front what it would cost for his services. The work he does is terrific and I'll gladly pay for that craftsmanship. If we can negotiate a barter of some sort that would be good, but I'd want it set up before hand. Our relationship is too important and our time is valuable. These types of issues really can spoil things. Don't feel bad for insisting on talking things over and setting a few guidelines.

  • Rachel Sejas says:

    Where to begin? I am a decorative artisan and have always done my parents' house for free. It is however on my own time and they must purchase all materials AND babysit my kids pretty much anytime I ask (yes I am spoiled). I have much older siblings from my dad's first marriage and we are not close so that is a non-issue.

    Friends are another issue. During slow periods I have worked for free and even used product left from previous jobs. They make out like bandits! I have also priced my work super cheap for them and I can honestly say that I regret it every time.

    Honestly, I have no good answers because I am still trying to maneuver that minefield. This much I have figured out: it is imperative to come up with a standard plan for these situations and stick to it. You have standard policies for general clients in your business plan so why not have a standard policy for friends/ family. It is a new year and you can even blame it on the new year, new approach to business thing.

    My dad has been an attorney for over 50 years and I cannot tell you how many people only call him when they need a favor or want legal advice! The worst part is how many special favors they expect that could actually get him disbarred. When he tries to explain this to them they always act like the injured party!

    Well, I guess I am pretty much useless in the advice department but I hope you realize you are not alone!

  • Razmataz says:

    For my immediate siblings and mother, I would never charge. They give back to me in the ways they can, whether it be putting me up in New York or dog sitting. I don't let it cut into client time, I would work on my off time if I needed to.

    For anyone outside of immediate family (friends, neighbors) I offer a 50% off discount and split my discount with them. I once did a very large drapery project for my sister in law. There was some miscommunication (mine, theirs and the workroom) and we had a big problem. They were furious with me and I had to pay for a redo from my own pocket to keep the peace. Never again.

    My other sister in law has been one of my best clients and always insists on paying me for every hour and full price for all product. She prefers to keep this side professional and I always give her some extra's like custom toss cushions or bed linens to show I appreciate her business and her respect for my fees. But she can afford it. Others in my family can't.

  • Muffy says:

    Personally, I don't charge family. What I find extremely frustrating is that they don't treat me as a professional & want to nit-pick & question every little thing!!! Then, they will only use a few of my suggestions & brag to their friends that I "did" their room. Eek! I have had similar situations with friends, who I do charge. I think the key is to discuss the guidelines in the beginning. If you don't charge them, definitely help them on your time frame. Hope it works out.

  • Andrea Lynn Orndorff says:

    Maria, thank you for your blog and your fair and honest presentation of these sometimes touchy subjects! I would never think of charging my mom, dad, or sister. Right now, my mom and I are working on updating the exterior of her 60s ranch: new door, trim work, porch, lighting, changing the trim color, etc. In the spring, we will tackle redoing her front walkway and the landscaping that has somehow survived the last four decades…a big project (design and project management), but we chunk it so it does not take too much time away from my paying clients. Aunts, cousins, and friends are different. For the most part, I charge as I would any other client, but gladly put in some extra time on their project without always charging. Thank you, Maria! I loved reading your goals yesterday. Keep being you in 2011!

  • Sjn says:

    I'm not a professional designer, but I am a sister, and I'm taking the question from that perspective. Reading all your thoughts and questions makes me think you don't have that great a relationship with your sisters. I do what I can for my family, I help them when they ask something of me. I don't question reciprocity. I always put family first. Our relationships are so much more important than a dollar.
    But listening to you, maybe a business relationship is the way for you to go. I think it's sad though, that family would have to be like that. I hope you all work it out without hard feelings.

    Besides having 2 sisters, I'm a mother who does whatever it takes to help my 3 daughters. Painting, sewing, shopping and decorating, whenever they need the help. I'm the one that "got the (designer) creative gene" too. I enjoy doing it and I enjoy helping them, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm grateful they want my help.

  • Bethany Christensen says:

    I totally get it Maria! I think the real issue here isn't about money. I think it is more about our friends and family placing a value of $0 on what we do. It seems like the people who want design work for free don't appreciate it or value it enough to pay for it anyway. They make the worst clients!!! They want us to just show up and wave our magic design wand over their home and call it good. They don't understand that real design work takes time, talent and energy.

    As designers we want to give each project our best and it is difficult to do that for someone who isn't invested in the project enough to pay you.

    The money is only part of the issue, for me it is more about what the money represents and how it changes the dynamic of your working relationship.

  • Cherie says:

    I'm not a designer and I'm an only child. But I am the mother of three grown children and we're a close family. Because both my husband and I are both writers and now retired professors, we are always asked to edit our family's writing of various natures — from letters of application to articles for revereed medical journals. We do it without blinking an eye and with full heart. We are good at what we do and of all people, we want to give our family this gift. All our kids have developed into some mighty fine writers and part of that is because we've taught them how to write and didn't just do the writing or do the editing. It might help your sisters to learn how to decorate from you. If you are going to do it for free, then they gotta be willing to learn and not just get the great house without a lot of effort on their parts.

    My two-bits for you and your sisters is: they should pay you for a consultation and in-house work if they don't want to learn and should be grateful they have such a talented sister. But if they honestly want to learn from you, then those teaching moments/sessions might be a good thing for all of you.

  • house remodeling says:

    You can transform your house without spending too much if you're creative enough.

  • Angie@Echoes of Laughter says:

    I don't have sisters. I only have a brother…so I don't really understand sister relationships but I am really bothered by the fact that they did not come help you pack when you moved. Is it a two way street or not? So you help them when asked but they are too busy to help you? You reap what you sow sisters!! Sorry, I know that it doesn't sound very Christian or family oriented to say that…but I have reached a point in my life that I have learned people do what they choose. If they didn't come help you was because it wasn't important enough to them. I would offer to help them with by offering a "family discount". My Dad was in business for over 40 years and he learned to never give anyone deals because they were still never happy with what they got.
    Maybe you should be 'too busy' to help?

  • Noelle at Gray Paint Decor says:

    I appreciate your vulnerability here, Maria. I know sister relationships can be really tough at times even when they're mostly good. It sounds to me like everyone is having normal human reactions to a tricky situation. For what it's worth my advice to you would be to try to eliminate the long weekend shopping trips, and really time consuming stuff, but continue to happily help them in smaller ways (like it sounds like you already do) For example, if a sister wants a sofa rec, perhaps you could gently say to email you links of what she's interested in and you can give your opinion on which way to go. In other words, let them do the time consuming leg work. I would put this all forward in a positive way, that you love them, and want to restore the purity of the relationship, and step back from this minefield for the good of the relationship. xoxo

  • Anonymous says:

    Whew! I agree Maria, excellent topic, but tough. For some families it may be "cut and dry", but I think for most, these kinds of situations are not so easy.

    But you have definitely shed some light on my own relationships. When we first moved into our home, we called my dad often to come and help out (he is very handy, although it's not his profession). And as time went on, he was available less and less. I kept wondering what the deal was. And then I realized (and even more so now) that I was not very appreciative of his time. I mean, I said, "Thank you Daddy, I love you!" But in retrospect, I really didn't value what he had done as much as I should have because it was free and I didn't know anything else. I didn't know what it was like to actually PAY someone to do what he was doing. Now, when I ask a favor (like when we needed the garbage disposal checked out, it was making really weird noises that hubby coulnd't figure out)I am TRULY very appreciate and I SHOW it. I am right there, listening, learning, handing him a wrench, asking if he would like a sandwich and some juice, does he need anything from the hardware store that I can run and buy for him to make the job easier? And you know what, he's happy to help. And because I truly appreciate his help (and because I love him of course), I make every effort to be there for him, even with a 2 year old and 4 four year old.
    To me it does not sound like it is a money issue, but the desire to be truly valued and appreciated, and that my dear, IS human!


  • Marlo says:

    I have the perspective of having a brother-in-law whose side job is to design and build kitchen cabinets, shutters, furniture, etc. If a family member asks him to build something, he usually says that he is busy with clients and if they want to wait (could be many months) he will do it when he’s free and he charges only for the materials. Some family members wait, some don’t. No one expects him to do it for free and most offer to pay full price. Why is that? Is it because we know he is physically slaving away in the workshop, drawing plans, sawing, sanding, measuring, gluing, nailing, assembling, measuring on site, driving back and forth, etc. and we understand he can’t possibly do all that sweat for nothing? I believe we do. Do we understand that his time is valuable because he could be making more money building for clients and we are taking him away from that? Yes, we do.

    Now, why would an interior designer be expected to do similar work and not get paid? Is it because our impression of an interior designer is that we think their job is easy, glamourous, fun, frivolous? Yes, I believe we do even though it is far from the truth. Both the designer and cabinet maker put in many hours for their service. Why would one profession be more deserving than the other?

    On the other hand, I personally would have a difficult time charging my family. I believe we should help family and not charge them for anything but maybe sometimes there are exceptions depending on what the service is and how much time is involved.

    No one should be put in the awkward position of asking for payment. Family members should be sensitive enough to offer some sort of payment on top of what they pay for materials and the designer can accept or decline.

    Then there’s the part about giving and taking. I know we’re supposed to give and not expect anything back but after a while of giving, with no taking, we start feeling like we’re not appreciated. They only come to us when they need help and they never help us? It’s a slap in the face and how many times do we turn the other cheek?

    A relationship takes two – whether it’s a marriage or a friendship or a sistership. One can’t always be the giver; everyone has to roll up their sleeves and contribute to whichever “ship” they’re in.

  • Andrea says:

    Different profession so slightly different issues, but I can relate to what you're saying. I'm an attorney with my own business and I charge a "friends and family rate" (though I have only applied it to friends so far – family insisted on paying full price even when I haven't charged them, so I guess I'm lucky). What's been good about this is I have a set percentage off, so no guessing at what's fair to charge each person. They have all paid the same rate. Plus I think they feel like they are getting special treatment (which they are! I like working with them) but I'm still getting paid. That being said, I don't mind to have short conversations with them for free. If it's the kind of thing we might talk about over coffee even if I wasn't an attorney, then I don't mind. I kind of feel like if it gets to the point where I have to start doing research as opposed to speaking off the top of my head, that's where it crosses the line. (Though that's also because I have to worry about ethics and malpractice if I get into the "advice" arena, beyond general information.) Is there a comparable line that you could draw? Like if you start looking at furniture as opposed to just talking about it over lunch?

    I should also say that I might be in the minority because many attorneys won't work with friends and family whatsoever, but I'm in a pretty non-contentious are of law (wills and trusts) so it's usually not an issue for me. Also, what I do is not the kind of thing people need hours and hours of help with every time they move, so I can see your dilemma!!

  • Ideezine says:


    I can see we are setting boundaries first thing in 2011. This is a great topic and teaching tool. Because the more we discuss this the more comfortable we are in our position as a professional when family and friends are asking for our services.

    I have four sisters (three brother-in-laws) and one brother (one sister-in-law). You wear many hats in a large family. When I completed my degrees I stated at my family celebration dinner that the first design project was free and I would be charging for a any and all projects after that at the going rate of a professional designer.

    Reason: My experience and knowledge have expanded past the beginning stages. Having a trusted professional is worth the price you pay, piece of mind, value and great design.

    I have found this to work out best in my situation and I have other skills that I charge for as well. I am a licensed manicurist and esthetician, master seamstress for clothing, costume, and home furnishings. Have degrees in art history, interior design and lots of experience in landscape design, photography and computer technology.

    The deciding factor is balance. If you are not paid the feeling of being taken advantage of sits like a lump in your throat and that's harder to live with than establishing a fee and being compensated for your great work. I agree with you setting these boundaries for paid services rendered.


  • Anonymous says:

    OMG. What planet are you from Maria? How could anyone be so self-centered and mean-spirited? It's not like they are asking you to donate a kidney. How difficult would it be to carve out a little time to do a favor for a loved one? Most people would get joy out of being able use one's talent to help out a family member. No wonder they didn't want to help you pack. Maybe they don't like Mean Girls.

  • Lynne says:

    I'm not a designer, but I think I might have reasonably good taste as I have a sister who copies everything I do shamelessly, and this causes me endless resentment when I have worked so hard to make a look my own.

    Her latest 'copy' was to rock up to my home yesterday sporting MY haircut!!!

  • Kathy @ Creative Home Expressions says:

    Good question, Maria. I don't help my family simply because they don't ask. Well, my Mom asks for my opinion and then does what she wants anyway. : ) If they were to ask for help, I'd help them. I've offered my discounts to them, but no one has taken me up on it. I can understand where you get to a point that you feel taken advantaged of in certain situations {and occupations}, and while they should feel they can ask you, they should also be ready to give you a hand when you need it. That's my two cents!

  • Annie@A View On Design says:

    well I'm not a designer, so you may not be specifically asking me Maria, but within the spectrum of helping people out in my area of expertise, I always offer for free. But if it's not workable for me (for whatever reason, time, my cost etc) I say "it's just not a good time for me to help you with that, can I recommend someone who could help you'. I know that may not work for everyone, in every situation, it's suitable for me. I guess overall, it's a case-by-case thing for me. Maybe, for instance, one sibling is great and helps you, and another doesn't. Therefore same relationship, but you'd handle it appropriately. I'd hate to think you'd loose sleep over the issue, just offer help you are happy to, and with other things (that you don't want to get bogged in with) say "gee I've got so much on atm, can I help you with that next year?"

  • Suzros says:

    This really hits close to home for me. My design business emerged from my helping friends with home renovations (changes to blueprints, onsite consults during construction etc) which led to paint, which led to furnishings, accessories etc. I have gotten clients because of the work that I did for these friends and I learned a lot from helping them. So no problem there. The problem is that now I have more business than I can believe and while I am always more than happy to help out my friends or pass on a discount, I simply am feeling too much of a time crunch. I absolutely cannot charge my good friends but wish someone would tell them that giving me a gift certficate to a favorite store or spa would be soooooo appreciated.
    This is where the give and take comes in. I know am setting some time boundaries which helps and not going out of my way quite so much.
    Tough stuff.

  • diane@onlinefabricstore says:

    Oh, Maria, this is a tough subject. My problem is two fold as my husband is a lawyer and I am a designer and everyone wants free advice from both of us. He does a great job of sending people to his office to set up an appointment and will reduce fees for friends but never for free. Depending on the problem, we also charge family members. However, my problem, like many other commenters, is friends who expect just a little advice or to use my discount etc. This is always a problem for me and I still dont have a solution that I am comfortable with so I just keep doing it. And any referrals I get from friends also expect some sort of reduced price….aaaarghh!

  • Anne says:

    I think whatever a designer decides to do with family is fine (free or fee), provided everyone involved agrees with and understands the arrangement. And there are no tears.

    Clearly, your sisters are confused (or pretending to be) as to what falls under "fee" and what falls under "free." Me? I wouldn't be confused, but I'm also not passive-aggressive. Are your sisters "normal" in their temperament or are there other issues going on here? If you all have a rollercoaster relationship to begin with, that muddies the waters and I'm not sure standard practices apply.

  • Karen@StrictlySimpleStyle says:

    Oh, how I can relate, years ago I was a licensed massage therapist and felt taken advantage of on many an occasion.

    A local designer once told me that her way of handling this is simple, she asks the individual what talents that they have that they might be able to share with her in exchange, bartering for a service she needs. She had others babysit for her, bake and do painting in her home in exchange for her advice.

  • Houses Gardens People says:

    People wiser and more generous than I will ever be have taught me to approach life and work with as much generosity as possible, in every way you can imagine. Generosity begets abundance.

    I'm still learning to do it, but you won't believe how being more generous, rather than less, is freeing. When you worry about whether you are getting your fare share, or being taken advantage of, you generate anxiety and stress.

    When you are generous — to whatever extent you think you can be at that moment — it's so liberating.

  • Anonymous says:

    Free! My husband is the one that my family and his call for anything. I'm a stay at home Mom and yes it is impossible to help someone move with toddlers btw. You would need a babysitter for this. If you don't have kids then you have no clue on that one. My husband is a HVAC tech and if someone in the family, close family like sisters, mother, grandmother, inlaws included here, he does the work for free. They have to pay for parts but he doesn't mark the stuff up on them either. That is selfish IMO. And he does not hold it against them at all. If he needs something and they can't do it at the time he nor I feel like he is owed for them to drop everything they are doing and help us. It doesn't work like that. If it is important then yes they would be there. Helping us move? Umm no. Its been a reaaaly long time since I have moved but we didn't ask for help. I can't believe anyone could feel that their work is so special that even family gets charged for it. Its picking out some decor and furniture, not brain surgery. People are so selfish these days and you may feel like you are right about what you are doing but you are NOT! Learn to help one another and maybe when you really need the help they will be there for you. Do it with a smile on your face. Don't hold it against them, thats what you are doing.

  • Nichole@40daysof says:

    I am not a designer, so I cannot speak to whether or not you should charge them. But my gut feeling is that maybe they should get a discount.

    I do think that a lot of this could be avoided if your sisters would be more thoughtful of you. I also do not have kids. And while most of my friends and family are good about not taking advantage of me simply because I have more free time, there have been some situations that have left me feeling just like you said – always the giver.

    Specifically, they seem to think it's okay to ask me to do them time consuming favors or even to attend fund raisers for their kid's school (because us childless people have more disposable income don't ya know), yet they are unwilling to get a babysitter so they can attend say a fundraiser I am throwing. Or use their kids to say they cannot do favors for me, which believe me, I am loathe to ask in the first place.

    I do think it would still bother you a little to do your sisters' houses for free, even if they were thoughtful and helpful to you. But the fact that they haven't been, means that you have no means to even justify to yourself why you should keep putting yourself out there.

    Good luck and good for you for dealing with this.


    PS I'm sure your sisters are lovely people. They have toddlers, which means they are exhausted. Which means they are probably not thinking clearly about this. But that still doesn't make it right.

  • Sally@DivineDistractions says:

    Perhaps my situation is a little different. I am single, and my family knows that there is not another salary to support me, so they rarely ask for help. I did do a kitchen remodel for my sister, and I did a small markup on materials but I didn't upcharge her on the subs labor costs. I think we both felt like that was fair. I'm happy to pass on my discounts and provide advice for free. I just don't allow my "working" for them to cost me out of pocket. If I can help some after hours, then I'm happy to do that, but they know I can't give them full days without charging. I'm grateful when they ask my advice, and I love helping them. What irritates me is when they go off and buy stuff without getting my help first! I'd love to help them get the best look, and they often just go and get things when they really should have asked. (Mostly my grow kids do that!) It's a touchy subject. Sounds like yall need to have a heart-to-heart!

  • eclecticrevisited says:

    Hi Maria,
    wow, you really touched on quite a topic..for me, when it comes to my services, I put my self-respect first as a designer and draw the boundaries from there….if it feels like I'm not being respected and valued for my expert advice then I don't offer it. kind of sad but I've found it's better to be respected than to be thought of as "nice" …"nice" often times gets walked on…I don't go there anymore…
    I am with you on the issue of people's perception that it's ok for a store to have a built in profit margin but the (individual)designer is not supposed to…so how is it that the designer is to continue in this field, providing their services..? it really is up to the designer to set the tone for their business and their business relationships…and being up front and open about fee's is vital… and not giving the business away… being taken advantage of will ruin your self-esteem..set boundaries and be firm, and be willing to walk away from bad deals no matter how badly you want the job…
    best of luck to you..
    I enjoy your blog…

  • Belinda says:

    After this I will have to stop reading your blog honestly. You have done other posts pertaining to the same thing you are talking about here and I don't agree with or like this way of thinking. I grew up and live in the south, maybe that is why I feel so strongly about this. We help one another. I have been stuck on the side of the road and people will stop and actually help you for FREE, strangers. My husband has done this for strangers as well. We don't expect anything but a Thank You! Be happy they trust in you and if your attitude would change towards them I'm sure theirs would as well. Good luck in all that you do~

  • Design in the Woods says:

    Hi Maria, you have really touched a nerve! All of the professionals here seem to be saying the same thing, proceed ahead with a "family discount". I like that idea too. The others who say to give freely of your time obviously don't sell it for a living. Do not give away anything (except to parents who have given so much already). If they want it for free, a few comments and suggestions can be made but to approach it like a project that you would be paid for is hurting your other clients who are waiting for your time. Giving away our time for free diminishes what we do for a living. It's a snowball going downhill, you do it once and everyone lines up.

  • Callie says:

    Hmmm, that can be a difficult subject to navigate. I am not a designer, nor is anyone in my family, but I like both shopping with them for furniture and debating paint color and such. If one of us were to become and expert and start charging, I would very much miss this part of our relationship. Perhaps that's how your sisters are feeling? Maybe it's not just your expert advice that they like, but feeling connected to you in completing a project together? I personally would not charge my family members for anything, but the bottom line is that you are beginning to feel taken advantage of and resentful and that can be much more damaging to a relationship than a fee. You are right to try to change that.

  • Tracey @ My House of Giggles says:

    Sorry, Maria….I have to disagree with you on this one. I just feel like there is so much more to life than making money, or clients, or getting ahead in our careers. If it's not about helping our families, then what's the point in making money? Just my take 🙂 I'm not a designer, so I don't know your exact situation, but I think it probably applies to most people in any sort of service/skills industry. For myself, I just couldn't ever charge my family…or friends, for that matter. But that's just me! And….moving with toddlers is impossible. Downright. But, having said that, if my sister needed help moving, I'd find some way to help (get a babysitter, send my husband ;), etc). I just think that life's too short to have this sort of tension in a family over money.

  • Laura Ingalls Gunn says:

    Hi Maria,

    This is the first time I have ever left a comment.

    The hard part about being a designer is that most people do not take into account the YEARS spent in a classroom. My husband, who has a Masters degree in Areonautical Engineering (close to a rocket scientist 🙂 watched me earn my degree and often tells others how he could not believe all that was required of the degree. So the comment about "it's not brain surgery" is just not appropriate. A good designer works many hours and days on a design which is why it looks fabulous.

    I read your post 2 times to make sure that I was reading and understanding your delimma. The one thing that really jumped out at me was that your sisters did not come over and help you pack when you moved. You did ask them to help I am assuming. (Mind reading never works. 🙂 I am also assuming that this is a regular occurrence in that they let you down when it is you who is doing the asking. This is a very telling clue in your relationship with them.
    As a the mother of 2 children, a wife, the owner of a design firm and someone who also takes 2 classes a semester, my time is at a premimum as I am sure you can imagine. But I still somehow will find time to help those I love. No excuses.
    For those that like to be onesided I eventually learned to be busy when they call.
    The majority of my friends and family members respect me enough to either inquire about my fees or offer to come up with a bartering solution that benefits us both.
    If your sisters are always taking and not giving it does indeed lead to bad feelings.
    A possible option for holidays, housewarming and birthdays, etc. : you could hire another designer (consultation + 2 hours, etc.) that lives close to them and remove yourself from the equation entirely. Or your gift to them is a coupon book of you that they can redeem. No coupon, then they pay.
    Bottom line. I have a feeling they aren't respecting you which has led to your understandably hurt feelings.
    Best of luck. This is indeed tricky.

  • Christine says:

    First off, I'm guessing you don't have children because having toddlers IS an excuse for not being free to help at the drop of a hat. They are your sisters and of course you should give them advice free of charge. The fact that you questioned this shows how arrogant you may be. This blog post just shows how pretentious your character is.

  • beyondbeige says:

    Hi Maria, I have two sisters and one of them is an aesthetician. I make an appointment at her office and pay for her services. She has worked very hard to get to this successful place in her business and I respect that. The same goes for you. You have worked very, very hard to get where you are. At the very least your sisters should recognize you are a professional and offer to pay for your services period. Especially if she is a repeat customer 🙂

  • Phaedra Elizabeth says:

    I have had the same dilemma, I am a fashion designer and as such have stopped making clothes for my family because of this exact kind of situation. After making all of my 3 siblings wedding clothes (and 2 of their spouses wedding clothes) as "wedding gifts" I have stopped because it actually doesn't feel appreciated. If they were willing to pay for my time (even with a discount) I'd be happy to take them on as clients, but so far, they aren't interested in paying. Ironically, my siblings are all creative types and I have in the past, bought one of my sisters paintings, you can imagine the resentment that comes with paying for her art, but somehow, mine is expected to be free.

    I think your solution is a good one, being paid (even at a discount) is a sign of appreciation and respect for your skills and talent and that goes a long why…

    thanks for bringing up the discussion and offering ideas at navigating this sticky subject.

  • Anonymous says:

    I think after this post it won't be a issue. This is such a touchy subject clearly why family and business is avoided by most. Their are two sides to every issue but FAMILY and BUSINESS bring SO much baggage on both sides I think best to avoid. That being said I can't imagine this is really only about money, time, value or the fact that they missed helping you move…all of that can be explained away…money, the referral you will get down the road, time do on your schedule and it is family, value, omg they are asking for YOUR help, missed helping with move miss understanding how important there help would be to YOU…..SO I think like ALL families baggage is rearing its head, this will pass and their will be more baggage for some than others BUT discussing it and moving on needed to be done for all to know where they stand. Hurt feeling, misunderstandings, resentment, won't change that if any of you were sick you would band together and BE their for each other soooo maybe best to lessen future bagage and avoid family and business. Good Luck

  • Saypoint says:

    Saypoint said…
    Ok. I'm not a designer, but I studied landscape design and often get questions from friends and family asking for advice about plants and design. If it's a casual question in the course of conversation, or a quick phone call to ask for advice or an opinion, I'm glad to be able to help. If a friend or family member asked me to do a full landscape design, however, I would not be so obliging. A lot of people don't realize how much work it is to measure, make a scaled drawing, lay out a design, choose materials, select plants for varying sun/soil/aesthetic needs, calculate the number of plants needed based on their mature size, and make a list. This is before any actual "work" is done, and can take many hours of focused work at the drawing table. On something they will second-guess, disagree with, or never implement because of the cost of hiring contractors and buying materials. I'd say, if you have extra time, advice on color and style should not take too long. If they want to you choose fabrics, make drawings, or specify and order furnishings, it's too much to ask for a freebie. Bartering time might be a good option? Record your hours and find something they can do in return. If they have few skills, let them clean your apartment weekly until you're even.
    The issue here is that if your family needs HELP, for an illness, car break-down, no heat in winter, or something that is a necessity, you should always be willing to help. For design, which is a LUXURY, it's a bit different. They can live without coordinated furnishings with no problem.

  • Anonymous says:

    Oh Maria…..such a dilemma! I feel for you. I had a decorative painting business for many years & altho' I ran into this with friends more often than with family, I can very much relate to your feeling of always being the giver. (And there were no toddlers on EITHER side, when I was in the midst of this.) In fact, I remember posting my frustration and feelings of abandonment on this same issue on my own blog, 3 or 4 years ago.

    A couple of things come to mind:

    1) Hopefully the volume & tone of the comments let you know that you're not alone. That realization is always helpful for me.

    2) Ultimately, we have to make our own decisions that we can live with. I always say that at 3am, you're the only one who's awake worrying about you. (Well — ok, maybe your Mom might be! But mine's passed on, so I'm pretty sure it's just me.)

    I will trust that you will do what is right for you, right now.

    3) The older I get, and the more I take time to slow down and be introspective–which I was NOT, when I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off, running my biz — the more I've learned to follow what "Houses Gardens People" offered: be kind. Be generous.

    (And I think you ARE a generous person — regardless of some comments, I hear it in your posts.)

    Even family we're not close to or are at odds with at times, are still family. And in years to come, your relationships & expectations around these people may change. Live life looking for the long term, while being aware of how short it can be.

    4) When I read that your sister's in tears….and I hear your frustration… occurs to me that you are both similarly frustrated. But not hearing each other, perhaps?

    As a past student of Landmark Education myself, what I remember most of LE was the adage that "to change your life, change your conversations".

    I'm not in your shoes — nor a psychologist — so I apologize if this sounds preachy. But you have an opportunity to have conversations with your sisters. (And yes, maybe you'll have to arrange for the babysitter, in order for them to have the time to focus on this.)

    As artists and designers, we often focus on our training and our efforts and how hard we've worked. We can justify till the cows come home, but few understand. Your sisters can justify their exhaustion and lack of time, and you have difficulty empathizing, too.

    I would ask you to focus on the long-term relationship with each sister, and how you can positively inpact these, by new conversations. Maybe you need to share — without bringing up the long years of work and school — the level of frustration these requests create for you. Maybe your sister(s) needs to hear that you also are near tears. Sometimes these very human admissions, without blame or justification, are the key to finally TRULY hearing each other.

    I love your blog, and I wish you the best. I will hold you in calmness and peace today, and will look forward to hearing what you choose to share about this, down the road.

    nancy v-b

  • Anonymous says:

    A difficult topic . . . Each person must live with family forever. I'm a CPA, masters in Taxation, . . . Do the Federal & State filings for all family members (7 in total) for nothing in return. Could Never even contemplate charging. Don't take this the wrong way . . . You're single and free, not beholden to anyone so your perspective is different . . . Could you even imagine charging your children . . . Family is all you have . . . The day may come when you need to rely on them . . . What will they do, charge you rent or the cost that a nurse would charge or charge you for the joy/warmth you get from their children. Enjoy your blog immensely, your professional progress etc. but in this instance perhaps you should revisit your personal relationship maturity level. Out of curiosity, where do you spend you holidays?

  • Denise says:

    Suggest to your sister to begin tearing out of magazines sofas she likes. Soon she will discover a style she really likes. AS for colour tell her to go solid. In the mean time, send her a fee chart. At the bottom, include a note on how much you give for family discount.


  • Susan Seale says:

    Issues of the heart are NEVER cut and dried. I know how big your heart is…it's ENORMOUS!!!!

    I can also read your goals for this year…and so can your sisters. If i were your sister, I would want to help you reach your goals too not just expect you to help me with mine.

    Because you originally grew up in a family home that is an English as a second language home…your family will not ever "get" you charging for your services to them. They just won't. That's that way it is. It's a cultural family thing and much deeper than just making a decision and sticking to it.

    I also have a feeling that deep, deep inside…you actually do want to help them whether or not they pay you. It really sounds to me like you are wondering how to do it all! Help them and keep yourself on track to reach your financial and other goals.

    In fact, when I read your goals, I don't see family in there…of course, you may have goals we can't see:)

    I think you are very brave to ask the question and I LOVE that you did that. I've been in your situation and I did not find it easy. You have to live with your decision and they will be in their new homes for a long time…so you probably don't have to be definitive right now. I know it feels better to make a cut and dried decision though.

    Give yourself and them time to sort it out…there are so many comments here to read!!!! wow! I hope your sisters read them too! You are loved!

  • Maria Killam says:

    HI Everyone,
    I appreciate all your comments and suggestions, the one that resonates the most with me so far is from Karen, the straight out " asking the individual what talents they have that they might be able to share in exchange, bartering for a service I need.

    I am 43 years old and I have happily and with love decorated every single residence that my sisters have lived in since I was 20. For both of them when they were young, I also bought many accessories that were installed just because it was also those extra items that made the space really great and I was very happy to do that.

    We are very close and where every designer I know over the age of 50 is real straight about NOT designing for their family, I don't want it to come to that. If my sisters are not able to reciprocate in a way that works for me (because of their small children or whatever) then I need to be paid, and my sisters are generous enough to understand that, as I've already said in my post (and lets be clear, I'll still be the cheapest designer they will ever have).


  • Lazy Gardens says:

    Oh .. tough area. Because you sell TIME.

    My BIL is a contractor. He's given me casual advice on some things, recommended a few tradesmen, but if I wanted a real project from him, he would charge me full rates.

    And he SHOULD! He's not a charity, he has bills to pay, and he only has a certain number of hours in the week.

    He wouldn't expect more than casual advice and a few doodles from me to landscape one of his builds without a bill for time and paying for the materials.

    The time-consuming part of your job appears to be the searching and shopping for furnishings. Followed by the making the space drawings and plans.

    Can you delegate that part to them, have them come in with floor plans, pictures and measurements of what they found that they like in their budget range, a proposed color palette, and let you help them pick?

    It wouldn't be the whole "designer treatment", but it wouldn't be amateur hour either. You would be the "design coach".

    I do this kind of a coaching consult when it's possible … it's personalized for the client's needs but I shift the legwork and the digging onto the home owner.

    I ask them to answer a bunch of questions, take measurements (and I use Google Maps), send some pics of their current landscape, some picks or links to pics of things they really like.

    They get a rough sketch indicating locations for the plants, a list of plants that would be suitable for their needs, and a schedule indicating what should be done first, and what probably needs a pro.

    It isn't like getting the white-glove treatment from one of the area's star landscape companies, but it gets them a much better result than pure DIY.

  • The English Organizer says:

    Coincidence: just a few minutes ago I was smiling over this flowchart "Should I work for free?"
    (contains some profanity).

  • Linda Pakravan says:

    This is a real issue for those of us in the design business and some of the harsher comments are unwarranted. It sounds like there are issues with your sisters, and who doesn't have a family issue or two.

    I think it comes down to helping our family and friends understand the value of our work. If we decide to work for free, we should at least send them an invoice that shows all the design/consulting time at normal rates, then show a line item for a credit for the total, and then the amount due is zero. This at least lets them know what it would have cost if they didn't have the family connection.

    Thanks to HGTV many people assume "design" is super easy, fun, and doesn't take a long time. We've seen the designers putting all the elements for a room together in less than 5 minutes. Totally unrealistic.

    Another factor that degrades the value of design is when furniture stores offer "free" in-house design services. Consumers don't get, or don't want to acknowledge, that the cost of the designer is built into whatever they're buying.

    I've always said free advice is rarely valued and seldom followed. Our free design advice might be followed, but not often valued.

  • Kelly, Arte Styling says:

    Great discussion…with lots of interesting comments. The comments vary so much that I think it supports my perspective of "it depends." And I think it mostly depends on the deeper question – "What kind of relationship do you have with your friends and family?"

    I have two older brothers and I have helped both of them with several major remodels. Fortunately, my oldest brother offered to pay. He's paid me in cash, and in dinners and in extra fancy bday and xmas gifts (hello, Dyson vacuum!) He also watches the dog when we are out of town, does airport pick ups, etc., etc. The other brother…well, let's just say they have a hard time parting with money. I am done working with them. If they want to pay, fine, but I won't work for free, cuz it really is "for free." Consequently, I have a closer over-all relationship with my eldest brother. There is respect there, and THAT is worth its weight in GOLD.

    Friends haven't asked me to work for free too much. I think I nipped that one in the bud when I first started working. As a wedding gift, I gave a close friend a gift certificate for my design services. That assigned value to my work. Since most of my friends are friends with each other, I think that helped to eliminate any uncomfortable assumptions that I might work for free.

    Maybe you can gift your services to your sister(s) as a bday present?

    Again – great discussion. Good luck, Maria.

  • Anonymous says:

    Everyone is different but I can't imagine charging my family for anything.

    One question we might ask ourselves is if we needed another family member to help us, would we pay them for their services?


  • Donna says:

    Maria, I knew how much you loved your sisters and Mom before you ever posted this. I've read your blog long enough to know this. I'm feeling so sad that people leave ugly anonymous comments. They make us all feel bad.

    I'm also wondering if you made the choice to publicly explain the delimma because you knew, for a fact, that other designers would be struggling with the same thing. It's a question all professional people have to deal with. It's a perfect post to share, but unfortunately–it also leaves you vulnerable to darts of many kinds because how can anyone really understand the in's and out's of your situation unless they really know the whole story. I would be embarrassed to criticize or question your relationship to your family without knowing the whole story. The responsible thing to do if you feel you must say hard things is to send there comments to you in an email instead of spoiling the tone of your post.

    I've done and am doing so much sewing for free..that I never get to sew for myself at all. I've got backlogs of quilts to do for family and friends. They pay for the materials (about 30.00) and say 'no hurry' but the thought of paying me to quilt a quilt (hand-quilted) never enters their minds. They get the quilt..I get nothing. Some have never done anything for me at all.

    I'm so grateful to friends who pay me for my time. I always give them a discount of course. Everyone knows I they ask..often. The main thing is that no one appreciates the time involved. Saying NO is so hard for me. I don't even have a 'real' business but I have done many paying jobs.

    I have close family who I love who always offer some money for my work–organizing–major sewing projects etc. but never enough to make it worth how difficult it is to squeeze out the time to do the job. My problem is just sheer lack of time. They help out a lot when we need them…and we do the same for them. But no one get's stuck with these long tedious projects that keep me from being able to do anything to bring in a little extra income. I've decided that NEVER again will I do a large sewing project for a family member. I'll help them in other ways as I always have, but until I'm not so buried in past obligations, I'm just not going to do it.

    I'm behind…and for now..the schedule is my excuse. The sewing requests from friends and family are never ending. Since I don't have a business, but accomplish professional results, they all want those results for nothing.
    I'm only just learning that if I want to have a life, I'm going to have to say no. That's why my house isn't painted…too many past obligations have piled up. And if you add a year of estate work to that. Well–it's hopeless. I LOVE helping people but it makes no sense when I'm doing 90% of the giving. Perhaps I need to start a business and publish rates so my friends, who I know mean no harm, will know that there is a cost involved. :O) It's up to me though to set those boundaries. I've gotten much better about just saying NO. I'm done. I'll help you move, I'll help you clean..if I have time..but no more sewing! Ha!

  • Donna says:

    PS. I also have friends who have done a LOT for me and I'm always glad to do my sewing for free because they did car repairs or coached my kids. If the job is a little can be for free–but if it takes a lot of time, theirs or mine–I want to reciprocate.

    Great post!

  • Summers Cottage says:

    Getting kind of tired of all the harping about money, Maria. Can you post about colors and design for awhile? Its a lot of wasted negative energy…

  • Nicole Hough says:

    I agree with all those who have said they appreciate your honesty on this. I have done work for free for family and friends. And I will probably continue to do it BUT like someone else said above, I always end up regretting it – especially for friends. They don't appreciate the process, I probably don't do as good a job, and I live in fear that if it doesn't work out then a favor will turn into a major liability. I don't have a solution to the problem tho. One of my first mentors in the design world said NEVER design for friends or family. PROBLEM SOLVED 🙂

  • Kelly Berg, IIDA, IACC-NA says:

    Just had one more thing to add…
    Another question you might want to ask yourself, besides "What kind of relationship do you have with your friends and family?" is…"What kind of relationship would you LIKE to have with your friends and family?"
    What I'm gathering here is that many people think that by making the choice of charging for family you are acting not out of love, but out of selfishness. I, personally, refuse to judge anyone so blindly on a forum/blog. Fact of the matter is that this can be an issue in our profession – as is proven by this discussion.
    When I struggle with questions like this…questions where friends and family are concerned…I try to ask myself what I am doing to contribute to the good and bad of the situation. Am I doing everything I can to create a good relationship with others…while at the same time caring for my own needs? How can I find a balance so that I am giving but not feeling taken advantage of? Unfortunately, this varies form person to person and family to family…and in my experience, when there are issues with this sort of thing, there are probably larger issues at hand that have nothing to do with decorating and design services.
    If there is a way you can make your relationships better through free design services, I say do it. If you are going to add to the tension of relationships through free services than skip it. But, make sure it is, in fact, the free services that is the issue and not something else. Also, think about what the services might mean to your sister(s). Perhaps if you don't help them, they are interpreting that as not being important in your life.
    Tough stuff, but you can grow from this. I know I have…and I still am. Know where to draw the lines, but do everything from a place of love.

  • Dianne says:

    Definitely a difficult situation! My husband is a financial planner and we've had situations without strong boundaries that have definitely hurt relationships. Every conversation became about his work and what he could/would do. He applied forgiveness to take care of the past and set boundaries to move forward. When he set boundaries (how much time he could give to a certain, very specified topic, what 'leg work' was expected from the other person, timing, etc.) things did get much better. My husband (like you) loves what he does, likes sharing with other people (you do too or you wouldn't have a blog from which so many of us have learned) and he definitely goes over and beyond. Having those boundaries in place keeps things clear and simple, makes room for more generosity, and helps relationships.

  • StylishHeather says:

    Who knew this was such a hot topic?

    I never charge my mom or brother and his fiancee for anything I do for them – which works out to quite a bit of work since I think I've done pretty much every room in both houses and will be asked to do the rest of them. But they also help me whenever I need anything – free babysitting, picking up kids at school, any of them will pretty much drop everything to help us if we need it, so I just think of it as one of the things I do for them. Plus I get before/after pictures, so I'm happy 🙂 And it's nice to be able to try stuff out at my mom's before suggesting it to a paying client – if it doesn't work out, she won't get upset 😉

    My issue has been more people that aren't family or even really "friends" – if someone asked my husband about my services for a while he'd say to give me a call, I wouldn't charge them – we straightened that out fairly quickly though – now he knows better!

  • Maria Killam says:

    Dear Summers Cottage,
    The last time I posted about pricing was in September. Personally the style of my blog is occasionally to stir things up and cause a debate, if everyone is always "nodding like sheep" as 'copyblogger' would say, how boring is that?

    My relationships with my family are constantly growing and I think conversations like this really make a difference for me as well as forward our relationship and help a lot of other designers who read my blog.

    I'm committed to completing this conversation once and for all (in my family) so it's clear for all of us and then we don't need to suppress the resentment we really feel.

    I already had a great conversation with one of my sisters this morning which I'll post about when I sort it all out because of this post and the comments. And it was something I'd never seen before about how to handle this 'money' conversation which triggers us all.

    For those that say "just be generous it all works out in the end" I am the kind of person who, when someone is providing a service for me, quotes their price I almost always pay more because I know what it's like to be on the other side asking.

    I sell time which is way harder than selling product. And I would guess that anyone leaving the cranky comments doesn't sell time, because anyone that does, gets this in spades and is also looking for a way to handle it better.

    It's called drawing boundaries, my brother-in-law handles it expertly with telling people to make an appointment (and never giving free advice otherwise) so he doesn't end up resenting anyone, he has drawn the line in a way that works for him.

    If you have ANY resentment towards ANYONE it's usually because the line hasn't been drawn firmly enough. That's when I think being 'generous anyway' is inauthentic because now you are just pretending, and there's very few human beings in this world that don't start expecting something from someone that they constantly give to (all you have to do is read the above comments and the ungenerous friends that happily take, take, take, eventually get told–we're busy). Very different from 'stopping by the side of the road', or other comments people have made. Yes obviously that stuff goes without saying.

    Bottom line, if we take the 'design' equation out of our relationship, there would be no discussion about reciprocity with my sisters because they are both inherently generous in their own way (some people are more generous with money and some with time, some with both). But there is so much work in designing someone's home that it becomes very hard to reciprocate enough, so an easier solution in this case is to pay.

    Thanks for the comments, it's the only way to sort out the sticky situations, and when you contribute to forwarding the conversation is helps us all.

  • Andrea says:

    After commenting here last night, I came across this hilarious flowchart today from Jessica Hische – "should I work for free?"

  • CRICKET says:

    I think you can give some direction and advice for free – set them in a direction. If they want more than that then I think it would be reasonable for them to hire you but at a discounted rate. BTW – Pottery Barn and Ethan Allen will come out to your house free of charge to make sure that the couch you order is the right size and will help you with fabric selection. They will not however give any other input except for that particular purchase.

  • Lisa says:

    Oh by all the comments this is a great topic! I don't charge family – I just can't do it. However, it is on my time schedule and I purchase items at cost for them. I look at it as free advertising – they will definitely recommend me to others.
    Friends, I find is trickier, I am happy to help with small items – but recently a large bathroom reno became an issue. Charged them a reduced rate & offered to pick up some items at a discounted rate. They are doing labour themselves & keep changing things on the fly. Still not sure what the best way is to handle this.

  • Anonymous says:

    I'm in the "would NEVER think to charge my family" group. My take on it is that nothing in life will ever be "even-steven". I know my sisters and other family members will always be there for me and it makes me feel really good to help them make their homes warm, happy places. They are great, though, and realize that their projects will be done on the side and that paying clients will take priority regarding appts and meetings.

  • Lila says:

    This is a tricky situation. My brother-in-law is an attorney and alot of family members try to take "free" advice from him. His rule now is free for immediate family (siblings and parents) but cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. receive a discounted rate but, must pay! I would say do whatever feels right to you. If you're going to be bugged for years after the fact that you helped you sisters' for free, than just charge them! Hope it works out!
    Lila Ferraro

  • classic • casual • home says:

    Wow. Reading all these comments has been seriously entertaining. You can tell which readers have toddlers 🙂 Personally, I have not charged my family and extend my discounts to them. And they are so grateful! My cousin (who's living room and family room I just styled) did some free legal work for me and my sister (who owns an ad agency) has helped me with advertising. If they have subs to pay, I only pay for that. It works out but I never expect anything from them.

    Since you are working "Hot Buttons" what about when you go back to a client's house (say a year after your work is done for them) and it is cluttered up and moved around?
    Mary Ann
    PS. We know you love your sisters…look how much you have done for them already.


    Well, what a spicy post this is!
    Maria above all else, I thank you for your honesty. All designers go through this (my brother is building a new house and I'm helping him) – and it's driving me nuts.
    Good for you to put your thoughts out there for us to ponder.
    I'm emailing you with a suggestion.
    Again, thank you for your honesty and openess!
    Anyone who posted a snarky comment just doesn't know you.

  • Anonymous says:

    For those of you that are suggesting Maria should decorate an entire house for free, I am not sure that you have any sense of how much time that would take. I have had Maria in my home and while in 4 hours she has given me a tonne of direction and help in this time, it only scratches the surface of what would be required to decorate an entire home down to accessories. I suspect she will spend up to 100 hours on this project which can't help but impact on other work. The lady deserves some sleep – which I am sure her sister wants for her as well! The reality is, you never charge your family for all of your time on such things anyway – i suspect she will get an enormous discount along with her pretty home in the end. It is the principle of the thing.

  • Karen says:

    For the love of god, you are a 43-year-old professional with a thriving design business. HIRE MOVERS.

  • Anonymous says:

    I do not know many people that are flush enough to hire movers to help you pack, which is not a lot to ask of family that you are close with. Stop being mean.

  • Elizabeth Roberts Design says:

    Truly a tough one, Maria. When I was first reading your post, the strings in my being were squirming at the thought of charging family, BUT – when we built our new home in '08, despite my intuition to the contrary, we used family for an important element of the exterior finishing.

    I stated to them that we did not expect a discount, but they recommended we go with another brother who could do a 'great job for less'. In the end, we paid probably more than we would have another vendor, and the process was *extremely* stressful for me, as I had to micro-manage him beyond anything that falls into the realm of 'project mgmt'.

    My lesson in that was to not mix family at all with business. Since then, I have provided room layout and furniture suggestions to them for free — which I don't mind doing at casual family dinners {just b/c I love doing it}, and it fit inside of an evening w/them. But if I were asked to come out specifically to spend dedicated time to give advice (or by eMail or phone), you are absolutely right that we have to charge.

    And when do your "no charge casual conversations" become time that you charge for? I say get very clear about where the boundaries are, communicate them and be happy that you know where to draw the line.

  • Amanda- Hip House Girl says:

    What a great discussion! Something is bugging me though- "It's not brain surgery". That is just rude an ignorant, and I probably shouldn't even be justifying it with a response, but I am. Design is a profession and having tried to decorate my own home (and having it look rather happily suburbsy-novice at best) I completely respect your profession.

    My brother is a professional house painter- interior, exterior, doors, garages, everything. He helps me for free (I usually buy the materials) because I'm the youngest and poor, and he's happy to do it. (I try to help him with grunt work on his own properties, but it's never truly equal.) However, we have an older, MUCH more established (dare I say wealthy?) relative who expects the work for free as well. Not to mention, my dear brother threw out his back while helping said relative, and they did not even offer to pay for his doc visit. Now that's pretty cheap if you ask me.

    Throughout the years, he's stopped doing work for free for extended family and relatives. As he puts it, "That's like me giving someone a gift worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars. I don't make enough money to be that gangsta." However, if someone were to call him up and ask what kind of paint to use on what surface, etc., he would gladly answer it for free.

    Someone above also mentioned being involved when someone is giving you free services. Hang out with them while they do it, offer them a sandwich, ask if they need anything, etc. That's one I've had to learn but it makes all the difference.

    I think my favorite solution so far has been to charge a "friends and family" rate, whatever that may be. That way they still feel special and respect your expertise, but you're not working yourself into the ground for someone who doesn't really appreciate what you do.

    And I'm sure you are a strong enough woman to handle the mean comments, but don't let anyone make you feel selfish. It's not unreasonable to want people to respect your livelihood.

  • Cherie says:

    Bottom-line: "family" is one of those entities that isn't a cut and dried process. Wish there were some rules to live by but it's an organic process and so much changes along the way. Do what gives you peace for now.

  • Deb's mind says:

    Somehow I suspect you knew this post when cause a stir!! I love people who say what they think and do what they say!! So on that note I am not a credentialed designer yet nor do I have my own business. But I have already provided many consults over the years…and never charged any of those people who are all friends and family. Just recently since I started design school and now some of those same people "jokingly" said "Oh I will even pay you". I haven't charged yet and but what I have said is "this one is free but the next one I will have to charge." DESIGN SCHOOL is expensive. I don't have a salary and my time is valuable. I love "helping" but I also love "making money". I really appreciate this post and will take to heart your message. Thanks!!

  • I can't believe your post drew 83 comments so far – amazing. It goes to show you that it's a complicated issue.I have a small family – no sisters, but my friends ask for discounts and free services all the time. I know how you feel. Design/decorating is a time consuming business!

  • Anonymous says:

    I'm not a designer, I'm a corporate type working for a large company. But I'll tell you a story from my working life.

    I started my career at a small firm and sat in a cubicle next to a guy who started at the same time as me. We were good friends and had lunch and coffee together all the time.

    A few years later we had both left to work for different firms. I stayed in the same line of work. He changed his a bit, and didn't remain current with our profession.

    From time to time I'd hear from my friend, and it would always be to "pick my brain" about this or that. Over time, I realized that he never called me for lunch or coffee, just to for free advice because he hadn't kept up with our profession.

    Every time I read an article about this, it would remind me that "no one can take advantage of you without your permission" and that he was using me. I felt resentful and angry. But still, he would call me every once in a while, and I'd tell myself I'd put my foot down, but not now. Next time.

    Then one day, out of the blue, he called me and said his company was looking for a company to handle a multimillion dollar deal, and was I interested? I did that deal and it made me a hero. (For a while, anyway. In corporate life, these things have a very short life.)

    Then he moved to another company, which he now is head of, and has moved his business to my company.

    So I guess all that time I was feeling used and resentful, I was being very short-sighted. THANK GOODNESS I never "stood up for myself" or called him out on what I thought was his abuse.

    I don't know whether this tale will help you, but I thought I'd share.

  • Kay says:

    I think you're wise to charge your sisters a fee for your services as it gets around the issue of their reciprocating at a later date. In New Zealand where I live professional people do things fro family and friends at "mates rates" – a reduced fee.

  • Belinda says:

    I do family (and friends) for free…however, I'm usually given a lovely gift in lieu of payment.
    My sister in law has been asking alot of questions as she renovates, and she didn't like one of my suggestions (which I think would of made the world of difference)….I now just shrug and give her a general answer when she wants my advice!

  • angie says:

    This was a very heartfelt post Maria, and I really admire you for putting it on the table so openly. I can only imagine the rotten awkward moments between you and your sisters. Not fun 🙁 I'm glad you've come to an amicable agreement though. Brilliant.

    I am a fashion stylist and I live in America as a Legal Alien – my family is back in Europe since I am European. I have never charged my family for my services and do help them from time to time, but they have never offered to pay so I just leave it at that. It's almost expected that I help them for free. It's not nearly as bad as it sounds though – I hardly see my very small family and I would NEVER charge my darling 78 year old Papa who I see every year (Mum passed away several years ago).

    Now how to charge/not charge friends is another story. Maria, that blog post is next!

  • What a fantastic topic and great reading in the comments! It's my friends more than family. Family isn't an issue as they don't have the interest or the means, which makes it easy. But friends, well, that can be another story. I haven't figured it out yet. So, this is great information for me. I was so impressed by your goals post, by the way, and congratulations on the BM sponsorship if I haven't said so already. You continue to inspire me and I appreciate it.

  • theresa says:

    hi maria – after a career of selling time, i am now home with toddlers – did you offer to pay for a babysitter so that your sisters could help you pack? when you all are old women and your parents have passed away, do you want this issue to be one of the things that define your sisterly relationships? take a long view, please – better to not design for them than to charge them because you feel that your time is more valuable than their time – and, personally, my approach has been to offer my (free)services on my timetable, because i consider rearing my children to be a serious and time consuming job of far more lasting import than anything i could offer as a reading/dyslexia specialist –

  • Anonymous says:

    As a quilter, I worked with family on my time table. Often they didnt want to wait and went elswhere.

  • Anonymous says:

    Blood is thicker than water. Clients will come and go – your family is forever. It might seem like you are the giver all the time but it's your gift to share with them. Make sure that they understand that you need to fit it in around your business and can't drop everything but that you will do your very best to help them.

  • Linda in AZ * says:

    * Wow, what a H*O*T topic, Maria… and certainly a very interesting if not at times very sad, read…

    * Not being a "professional", at ANYthing ("other than" the wife of an extremely succesful, now newly retired, military officer), I wanted to simply share a thought… something I "realized" many years back while being a "professional volunteer", whether I WANTED to be one or not …. "You MAY not always GET what you pay for, but you'll ALWAYS pay for what you DO get"…

    Interesting how Pandora's Box has opened up here… As "somebody" said, re Jaqueline Suzanne's book "Once is Not Enough", "Once IS enough, if you DO IT RIGHT the FIRST TIME"…

    Linda in AZ *

  • Anonymous says:

    Oh my word, did this touch some nerves or what??!! Belinda-from-the- South (apparent former blog reader)and every other person who had a snarky comment: I'm from the South, too. Yes, we're hospitable and helpful, but the point here is that designing is Maria's livelihood. Her job. The way she supports herself. She's not selfish or mean. She has boundaries. I just can't let you pick on her with those holier-than-thou comments without pointing out that you sound like you either belong in the do-gooders camp of doormats who can't say no and then gripe to anyone who'll listen about how overextended and stressed you are and how everyone takes advantage of you, OR you're one of the people who think you're entitled to ask for favors from family or friends who have a talent for something just because you know them. God help them if anyone told you no. If you can get your delicates in such a wad because Maria wondered aloud about this issue that you would call her mean or take her blog off your favorites list, you don't deserve good paint colors and I hope everything in your house clashes.

  • Zelda says:

    i do not work for family ,and family don't want to anyway ,family rarely see your value

  • Sara C. says:

    Don't do to others what you wouldn't want for yourself.
    Money is the quickest way to ruin family bonds, which should be based on love and giving (and not taking).
    I'm sorry for you if you have thought even for a while earning money, but I'm even more sorry for you when you calculate how much you have given and how much you have taken back.

    Sara C.

  • Michelle Donald says:

    Thankyou, thankyou, thankyou Maria for bringing this difficult dilemma to the surface. I have been faced with this situation time and time again with my family – you see, between my husband and I we have 20 neices and nephews! and most of them are building and renovating houses. The first ever niece that asked me for help with her new home being built asked me to choose the colour scheme for her whole home, do the bathroom design and cabinetry finishes plus design her whole kitchen from scratch, but she said 'only if I can pay you' which she did and you know what? Her house looks amazing and she is so happy with it and I put this down to it being so because the money issue of to charge or not to charge was sorted before I even began and so did not disrupt the flow of my creativity.
    I have done several other neices and nephews homes (one of late who could not believe that I would be charging him!!) but I just say 'the precedent has been set, I cannot favour one over the other and yes there will be a fee'. (But what I really want to say is…. whinge and moan all you like – because when you see how much monetry value I will be actually adding to your home you will be glad to pay me.) mind you Maria, I always do it dirt cheap for them – because they're just starting out in life and they're also family.) Now…. I do have a sister and would I charge her? Honestly? I don't think I could because I know she would repay me with such gratitude, love and kindness, and this for me (because it's her) would mean far more to me than any amount of money.
    Good luck Maria – I do feel for you.

  • Anonymous says:

    Yep, people who sell product vs. people who sell time.

    The sell product people always seem to put more value on their time spent selling product.

    What I mean is it's interesting how their time is made tangible by product and they have it figured out to the last red cent how to only make money, not lose it. Product folks will ALWAYS try to stack the situation so it's in their favor.

    Yet if someone who sells time takes the same firm position, then it can be viewed as unreasonable, selfish, greedy, self-centered — everything but just good business.

    Paint store is a good example. When was the last time you walked into a paint store and they were giving away gallons of paint? Trust me, that's never going to happen and no one expects free gallons of paint either.

    Yet there are plenty of people who think it perfectly acceptable to expect free hours.

    If you wouldn't walk into a paint store and just *take* a gallon of paint, then you shouldn't expect to walk into someone's professional life and just *take* hours.

    Acknowledging that hours are every bit equivalent to actual product needs to be brought to light more often than it is.

  • Laura@Developing Designs says:

    Maria, the every loving, beautiful, talented, amazing, honest, thoughtful, considerate person that you are, have certainly brought up a topic that has provoked a lot of emotion. Heck, somebody had to do it. 🙂
    Though, I do find my hot button being triggered (can't help it) with the unsettling comments from some such as @Summers Cottage (OMG, how that comment could be made, Maria, your blog totally rocks and is full of sooooo much content and information that we love, and we LOVE it ALL, we do…..!) and @Belinda….helping one in need versus devoting countless hours of someones time for an indulgence is quite a different story. For anyone that wants to not read your blog any longer, is their total loss. Quote from Pretty Woman "BIG mistake, big….huge"

    Work, any work, whether designing, legal, medical, financial… work….time is money. Some are luxuries, some are necessities. When doing any of these for family or friends, boundaries are key….which is what you are trying to set. That my friend, I commend and respect, as those that are involved should too. It is usually almost always an awkward topic, but one that is better to work out up front. Payment, as I think some have figured out, doesn't have to be monetary, it is what you value to be important to you, whatever that might be.

    I have and love to be able to do things for all that I can…however, if I was not single and relying on my time to pay the bills, I would, but can not. I have not had a friend or family member raise their hand to pay my mortgage or car payment in lieu of my services. So, when family needs help, it does have to be on my schedule and after the paying clients. Sadly though, with that said, someone like my poor sister has been waiting a really, really, really long time.

    When I have done "free" jobs in the past, I have been burned with having to deal with fixing issues out of my pocket….so it cost me $! This is something that creates quite a resentment between me and a friend/family member. This definitely is not my desire to damage my friendships with friends or family. Explaining how the "business" works is key for all to understand (especially when needing to comprehend a field we know nothing about). You love your sisters, they love you…you are all adults and without doubt I know you guys will come up with a resolution that will work for everyone.

    Yes, it's true, we all do love getting something for free, BUT……
    "People do NOT value what they do not pay for"

    PS: Sorry this was so long…..

    Keep on rockin' it girlfriend!

  • Anonymous says:


    Before reading any other opinions, I wanted to say kudos to you for writing a very difficult post. You could tell that you and your family are close, and I think that is when these kinds of decisions are harder. If you didn't care, then it wouldn't be an issue.

    My sister, mother and I are all craftors and we are lucky to have a mother who is very talented and makes lots of things for us. I feel like we are so blessed by that and I know I will have lots of memories of my mother when I look at the things she has made for me. We also do projects together which gives us other good memories.

    While I'm sure it is hard to tell your family no, I don't see where you could easily draw a line as to what you would/would not do. I can also see where your sisters would absolutely want your opinion. I ask my mother frequently about projects I'm undertaking and value her opinion. Families and friends like to take advantage of in house expertise if they can get it (I sure do) but should also be understanding and willing to pay if the person is unwilling to provide advice/services for free. The best solution I've seen is to offer services to chosen individuals at a discount. Then, I think, both parties feel like they win.

  • Robyn says:

    Great Reading!

    I had my own design business in the past. For most people I am happy to give free advice, but a real project is much more complicated. A contract was mentioned whenever the casual design conversation started to get more specific. I would say something like…"Wow- this is sounding like a bigger project. I can go as far as you want with this, but at this point we really need to get this down on paper and write up a contract so we both know what we are getting into." Just the word "CONTRACT" was enough–friendly & professional, but enough to scare off anyone who wasn't committed. The contract could have even specified free work, but with a start, end, an outline, of what is to be done, etc. I have worked very successfully with friends but ALWAYS drew up a very specific contract, outlining every detail. I explained that It was to protect both of us and set clear expectations. Never had any problems. My mom did have a friend write her off when she offered up her new residence so we could "practice" on her…my mom laughed, and said to get in line and we could write up a contract to start in a a few months. That friend hasn't really been in her life much since then. Too bad…good riddance.

  • Amy says:

    Hi Maria, I've been an interior designer for 20 plus years and I've always happily helped family and close friends for free! I think you said the last time your sister asked for help was seven years ago, that's a long time. You get what you give. The satisfaction of helping my family has always brought me joy but, believe me when I tell you, those family members have been there for me in my most needed hours. As life marches on, you will need to call upon your sisters and the lessons that your mother has taught you to give unconditionally to those you love is a wise one. You have a talent that is so easy to give, I know because I have it, so share it! Be free with it, have fun shopping, drink some wine while painting…let her pay for wine and stop sweating it!

  • Anonymous says:

    Sticky! I am a 18 year PR professional and frequently get asked for me to share my media lists (which can take 12 hours to construct and update on a regular basis) not the mention the cost of subscribing to the list development service, or to help friends do a PR launch of a new store or small business. It literally would be a full time job and they don't realize what's involved in writing all the materials and planning an event.

    I am reminded of my Mom who, 30 years ago, would get so angry bc my Dad (an attorney) would have to leave at 9 at night to go to a neighbor's house to write a will or handle their legal issues — and never got paid. It was a "friendly request."

    "It's taking advantage! Why do people ask these things of him! Because he always says yes, that's why. I'd like to see them work for free during evenings when their children would rather their Fathers be home spending time with them."

    I think friends and referrals should pay your rate. Family free to a point. Going to a sister's house for a glass of wine to hang out and talk over ideas is one thing. Once it hits the level of real time and research, that's different.

  • Jeanne says:

    I fell in love with the bedroom you show on this post. I researched it on Decor Pad and discovered it is designed by James Michael Howard! He has a lovely web site and more pictures of this bedroom on his site.

  • Marie Brady says:

    Hi Maria,
    I would have to say I would not charge a close family member because the bond is worth more than anything. However, my time and services would obviously have to work into my schedule. I would expect them to do the leg work as well as research and check out my suggestions. I think there is a way you can give them help and guidance without being physically there for each tiny little step and shopping trip.

    I have done this for close friends but we usually have something barted in advance or they offer to pay. But, frankly, if it's for someone I care deeply about, I don't expect reciprocity.

  • Kathy M says:

    In my circle of friends and family, it's been our policy that once you are out of college, you move yourself. It's kept the peace for the last 20 years. I enjoy walking into their new place when they have everything set up and seeing how great it looks and bringing a house warming present. It's hard to have that same feeling when you've helped pack up their junk and haul furniture in. I'm so happy we are all in on this little "agreement." (of course I'd help mom pack, but would make sure she hired movers)

  • essirda says:

    Hello Maria,

    I just wanted to give you some support. You were courageous to talk about such a topic and obviously a discussion about it was much needed as apparently we have all ran into the situation with more or less success. I am a kitchen and bath designer and my husband is a cabinet maker. So you imagine the requests over the years. I have learned the following the hard way, not with my family (They are all profesionnals in the design field one way or an other and do realize that designing takes time commitment and research), but with friends or business acquaintances:
    -People do not value your work and your time unless they have to either pay for it, or commit their own time by helping or bardering.
    -If you ask somebody you know, to do some work for you I feel you should always offer to pay and insist they accept. You are asking them to do the job, because you respect them profesionally and because you would rather give them the work than to somebody you don't know, but not because it will be cheap or free. Then if they want to do something special for you it is their choice and yours to accept.
    I truly believe this is the only way to be fair and to have what you want at the end. If there is resentment in the professionnal relationship it will only hurt the result.
    Keep up the good work.

  • Maria Killam says:

    Okay, just for the record because people keep saying it. I most definitely hired movers (OMG the days when my family helped load up the truck as well are long over). I was just talking about packing. And it's true, moving is brutal and everyone should agree to just doing their own move, period end of story.

    I did crack up over the 'For the Love of God, Hire movers' comment 🙂


  • Maritha Sears says:


    Thanks so much for sharing this. I think all of these comments are so interesting. Relationships are gold, but it's also important to set healthy boundaries so YOU, as a designer don't feel violated. Being balanced is what it's all about and I think that is what you are on a journey towards finding. Thanks again, for being transparent enough to share this. 🙂

  • Laura Neuman says:

    Keep doing exactly what you are doing – I love reading about how a fellow designer takes on her work and life. I appreciate your frankness!

  • corymbia says:

    Well said, Maria, and thank you for your candour and honesty. I was a landscape designer but now write full time for garden magazines. My 4 sisters have never been shy about asking my advice and I've done the leg work and supplied them plants several times at wholesale prices. I can't say I've ever felt particularly appreciated for it. My best experience came from my late and much loved aunt who was one of my first design clients. She asked me to design something for her and asked me what I charged. I said I couldn't ask her for money and I'd do it for nothing. She replied that she wanted a professional, and how could she expect that from someone she wasn't showing she valued? Eventually we worked out a cost plus compromise but it taught me a lesson – that people will only put real value on something they have to pay for, whether that's with cash or kind.
    regards from Catherine in Sydney, Australia

  • Material Girls says:

    Maria, SO glad you brought this up! I just spent an hour reading all the comments and can relate to so many of the other designers out there. My problem isn't with family, it's with friends. I don't charge immediate family like my mom and sisters (but what's funny is that they usually end up offering to pay me for my services anyways or give me something in return without me asking, because they know firsthand how hard I work and how much time and energy projects take.) But friends…that's a totally different story. They don't seem to respect my profession and time AT ALL! I can't tell you how many projects I've done for free or at a huge discount for my friends (or the friends of my fiancee) and the result is always the same- they never end up proceeding with any of the options I present them (like real clients would). They know they aren't paying full price (or at all) for my services, so they don't take the project seriously. You can run all over town for them, spend hours on their projects (when you should be doing work for real clients) and it seriously does not phase them. They rarely appreciate it and it's gotten to the point, where I do start resenting them for this. It's less about the money and more about the lack of respect for my profession. I really need to set better boundaries with them and this post made me realize that! I love the idea of the "family and friends" rate. I don't mind doing free work for my immediate family because "they get it" and I love them to death for understanding!

  • Pattyann says:

    My husband and I have a business…not a design business,but we produce a product. Whenever we possibly can, we give away our products to nonprofits, to family, to friends. We are firm believers that what we give away will come back to us. For us, mostly it is a God thing….we feel led to do so. ARe we rich? monetarily…no. But, we feel rich when we give our product for free, free, free. Would we ever charge family? Heck no! It seems that we do receive back 10-fold. Today, I read this quote in a magazine: "You will find as you look back upon your life that the moments when you have really lived are the moments when you have done things in the spirit of love."
    For us, we work very hard in our business, but we are happy to give away a lot….we feel blessed to have everything we need and some of what we want…which is enough. Good luck to you in figuring out a solution….

  • Anonymous says:

    Wow. I am really surprised and somewhat taken aback that you would bring an issue like this to your blog – especially where you are so personally invested in a family dynamic and are presenting only one side of the story.

    But since you have asked – No. Never. I am a landscape architect and I cannot imagine charging my sister – or any family member – for my advice and assistance. What are sisters for?!

    It sounds from this blog entry that you are somewhat retaliatory in not helping your sister, since she didn't help you to pack your house last summer, even though she has small children. I can understand that this doesn't seem fair – but life is short, and families are forever.

  • Anonymous says:

    A post about very personal family relationships seems inappropriate on a decorating blog. Certainly more than I want to know. You do not come across in a good light at all.

  • MuddPuddleDesign says:

    As a designer and the middle of 3 sisters….I would never ever charge. These are the same people who cheered me on 20 years ago when I was just starting out. These are the same sisters who are still cheering me on when I am working on a big commercial project and having problems with contractors…If they want my help picking a sofa or a door knob I'm there… It's all about Family 😉

  • Rebecca says:

    I for one want to thank you for all the insights into color that you so freely give in your blog! I consider myself rather good with color – you have taught me the why of things I know by instinct and you have expanded my knowledge of color. If I was younger or money was no issue I would take your class.

    I will stay completely out of the family issue. All families are different. That said, every relationship worth having needs nurture. It looks like you and your sisters are doing just that. Also look at the situation from your Mother's point of view. She loves all of you and wants a happy family. As a Mom I just love it that our adult children are friends. And that the in-laws are such wonderful persons.

  • Beans says:

    Several comments central along the line of "that people will only put real value on something they have to pay for, whether that's with cash or kind….". Should everything of any value be equate to cash?

    My principle in life is I pay karma forward. Meaning that I give now and some other time I will be the taker, may not from the person I gave, but I believe it will even out at the end.

    On the note of packing and toddlers. They don't mix. Seriously, do you really want toddlers wander around among the dust, and sit on the crystal bowl that you just took down from the shelf and just about to wrap? Were your feeling was hurt because you were stressed with the moving and noone around to help?

    It seems your issue is you don't feel appreciate. That's understandable. Which remind me, I need to give my little sister a nice gift so she can finish the flower design I asked her to do 🙂

  • Anonymous says:


    Great discussion by the way!

    I just read your post Decorating for Family and I have to say, that I think I agree with you.

    Sometimes you have to take a stand where family are concerned otherwise they are tempted and do take advantage. In my opinion, if family respect the work you do as a professional they can show this respect by offering to pay or contribute at least 'something' for your time. Otherwise, non-payment can be interpreted as lack of respect or I think it is also called 'emotional blackmail'.

  • Anonymous says:


    I think that the mistake is in thinking that you are giving *free* advice. The cost now is in resentment and hurt feelings. Better to charge a fee!

    And anyone who thinks you are not extremely generous has not been reading your blog for very long!!!


  • Anonymous says:

    From the point of view of a different service professional from a very different profession (lawyer), short informal discussions with family and friends where I share basic information about the law and recommendations (for them to take without any assistance from me) are free; that's the benefit of having a lawyer for a sister. Actual services (where I review your documents, represent you in a matter and perform legal services) are always charged, though at a SLIGHTLY discounted rate from what I would charge strangers. That's it. I never review documents or draft documents for free, but a simple consultation where we talk a bit about your situation? No problem.

  • Anonymous says:

    I was a hair stylist for over 25 years and never once charged family for anything, and that was doing something for each and every one of them once a month for years.
    If you are charging your sisters such a nominal fee why charge them at all?

  • Renae Moore says:

    As far as giving my time to family I do so without any expectation of keeping things 'even'. If I did, I would set myself up for resentment and eventually bitterness.
    I give b/c I want to and it's around my schedule with my clients. Like you said, your sister's give in other ways, just don't worry about keeping tabs on what seems equitable in your mind. All will work out in the end!

  • Erika at BluLabel Bungalow says:

    Would never charge family and would do it on my time. The comment about toddlers not being an excuse…I would forgive you for that one because obviously you have no idea what it is like to have children if you never been fully responsible for one.

    Please don't damage your relationship with your sisters over money/time however you want to equate it. It is never worth it. They will be there for you if you never get another design job, ever.

    Besides, I always believe that life just evens out. If you just don't want to do it. Just don't do it. No one wants to feel like someone is always keeping score.

  • Christina Rodriguez | The Diva's Home says:

    I always help my mom for free. Everyone else needs to pay something, even if it's dinner, unless it's just a phone call.This is my way of making a living after all!

  • Donna says:

    Wow Maria. I read all the comments after mine for a second perusal. What a lot of amazing comments!–both pro and con. Funny how the cons are almost always anonymous. Ah well..human nature I guess.

    Well, I think the "Thank you so much for bringing up this topic" people outweigh the unkind or unpleasant comments in terms of us–your readers. But I can easily imagine that every single unkind comment hurt. Because it was judgment..without knowledge or understanding. I'm sorry people did that..but grateful that you stood up and explained the problem for the sake of those of us who have had such trouble setting boundaries and have been taken advantage of..habitually.

    You're a Queen in my opinion–and a great blogger..and sister!


  • Maria Killam says:

    Thanks Donna, that is such a nice thing to say!
    It means a lot coming from you!

  • Anonymous says:

    Maria, I love your color blog and have been reading for a long time.
    This is obviously a hot topic.
    What do you think about making a chart to show in black and white exactly how much time you have to do their job for them. When they see it in print like that they will see that you just do not have enough time in a day to do alot of their work for them. Sisterly advice would be different ofcourse.

  • Anonymous says:

    From one self-employed professional to another- just set up a black and white fee structure for your business. I do one for all clients and one for "family and friends" that includes discounts that I will not resent even after I spend double time with that client (because family and friends always require almost twice the time and effort of any other client, and their expectations are much higher). If anyone balks (which I have had a "very close" friend do), I simply explain that if they went somewhere else, they would pay the same exact fees (less any special discounts), without the absolute assurance in knowing the person who is working for them and understanding that the very best service will be given. If they are truly a friend, they know that I will go more than above and beyond for them and are happy to see that I am compensated for my hard work. It's not like I'm asking them for money- I am earning compensation for an exceptional service. I leave the ball in their court, because I don't want a friend to resent me for paying for my services, by likewise, I don't want to resent a friend for going above and beyond without compensation. If they would rather pay full price elsewhere, I will gladly refer them to various other professionals whom I know that can assist them well. If I choose to make exceptions to my "black and white-set scale," (which I do hands down for my mother and sister- though not saying you should for yours), then I do it freely, and without expectation…since that's what will get you after spending countless hours on a project feeling unappreciated. I've never had that problem though (feeling unappreciated), because thankfully, my mother and my sister go above and beyond for me in more ways that I can imagine. In short, don't apologize for setting professional boundaries, and don't apologize for throwing those boundaries out if you so feel for certain people. Do what works for you in YOUR BUSINESS (key word- business). In my opinion, the people that are taking this post so offensively have never had to rely on their personal services for their livelihood. We're not talking about part time design or hobby time…we're talking about your career.

  • Katy says:

    I agree with one of the commenters above that the problem is when your family places a value of $0 on all of your time, energy, and hard work. Especially when it is your LIVELIHOOD.

  • Wow… I realize you wrote this post 8 months ago, but I’m just reading it now and I really appreciate reading how you and others handle this sticky situation. I’m the designer in my family, and when my mom moved to my town I did her house for free. Now a few years later, she’s started messing with things on her own — bought some nasty cheap furniture that goes with NOTHING and asks me afterwards how do I like it. What can I say? She has destroyed my design, and there is nothing right about these chairs — not the shape, not the style, not the scale, the color, and the quality is crap. So I say, “Why did you choose brown?” and she gets all defensive “Doesn’t brown go with everything?” It’s like she wanted my help/validation, but she also wants to feel like she did it herself and be able to say that I think she did a good job. I don’t care what her house looks like as long as she’s happy with it, but I can’t have her telling people “My daughter the designer did this” if she goes in after the fact and messes it all up. My real paying clients don’t do this — it’s true, even with family, they just don’t value your expertise and services when you give it away for free.

    So I also have two sisters… One of whom takes pride in decorating her home herself, and she does a pretty good job of emulating the HGTV/DIY style that she likes, but her husband hates it. He made the mistake of saying, “We should just have your sister come in and do our house so everything works together” and she was LIVID — so I’m very careful not to make any decorating suggestions at her house!

    My other sister is the family charity case, always complaining that she doesn’t have money, then in the same breath boasting about how she doesn’t have to slave away at some “desk job” like the rest of us — kind of a poor-me-but-I’m-a-happy-hippy chick. I was always closer to her than my other sister, and when she bought her first home I helped her out with all kinds of things, not charging her anything for my time, and getting her products at cost. I even designed window treatments that my mom was able to sew for her to save the expense of a professional workroom. She seemed grateful at the time, and told me everyone who comes over gushes and compliments her on everything I did for her… But recently she accidentally hit “reply all” on an email to my mom that she didn’t know I would see, and in it she’s complaining behind my back about how when I help with her home I’m “overbearing” and I “take over.” It was like she was doing ME a favor by allowing me to work for her for free.

    I am with you; I love my family, but I think that doing design work for free for family members CAUSES problems in family relationships. I’m not going there anymore!

  • Candy Albano says:

    My brother and sister-in-law recently moved into my area. They bought a very large apartment and had assumed I would be doing their design/ decorating for them. After hearing him say this several times, and never once asking me if this is something I had time do or would even want to do, I said this “I would love to work on your project but, I could never
    charge you, and unfortunately, I don’t want to work for free!!!

  • Rebecca C says:

    I have that problem where it is hard for me to help when I have such little kids. But I still make an effort. If it is help moving, I send my husband. If they have little kids, I offer to watch them. If none of that worked out, I would get someone else to watch my kids, or if possible, take them with me, to go and help out. If there is an effort to help, at least, on everyone’s part, that makes a bigger difference than if everything is completely equal in the end. Sometimes the childless family members get shafted, I’ve noticed. Hopefully things have gotten better since when you posted this originally.

  • EUGENIA says:

    I completely understand where you’re coming from. I came up with a friends and family rate. Which fixed the problem of working for free. The worst part for me is when they ask me for help, I give them my rate, they don’t proceed with any consultations (because I guess they were expecting a freebie) and then I visit them when all is done and they ask for my opinion and I just want to scream: “You should have called me!!!” I think it’s almost more torturous that working for free but I can’t decide what’s worst.

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