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Common wisdom would have it that money can’t buy you happiness. But let’s face it, we all need it to live—food, rent, gas, mortgage. They won’t pay for themselves.
And most of us have to work to get that money. There’s no avoiding it.
Sometimes though, we end up working for free—especially if our clients are family or friends.
But is blood thicker than water in every situation? Can a heartfelt thank you really make up for that “friends and family discount?”
To discover the truth, we've asked more than 800 Americans all about providing free services related to their professional work for their loved ones.
It turns out almost everyone does some work for free for friends and family, with many of us losing out big time by taking on such jobs.
We’ve calculated what this kindness costs, and found out what people really think about providing something for nothing. Read on to see what we uncovered.
Is thank you enough? The reality of working for free
Previous studies have shown that as many as 71% of people try to draw a clear line between private and professional life. But what happens when family or friends ask us for favors related to our work? And expect it to be provided without paying a cent.
To find out, we asked whether our respondents had ever provided free professional services to friends or family.
It turns out that almost everyone does. There’s an entire friends and family labor market right under our noses.
More than 93% of respondents admitted to having worked without pay for family or friends.
Among the most commonly mentioned services were cooking, catering and waiter service. Then there was childcare, providing free tutoring, assistance with transportation, and help with moving house. And on the repairs front, plumbing and renovating were common freebies.
And these were just the most common responses. The sheer variety of services offered was incredible and included, among others:
- Legal advice
- Hairstyling and coloring
- Beauty treatments
- Sewing and upholstery
- Investment advice
- Medical assistance
- Marketing support
- Customer service
- Car repair
- Computer repair
- Creating diet and training plans
- Translations and proofreading
- Accounting services
So it’s fair to say that Americans are doing a hell of a lot of work for free, providing pretty much any professional service you can think of.
But are they OK with that?
Turns out, more than half of respondents (53%) who did free work for family or friends felt they should be paid for it.
And younger people under the age of 39 felt particularly strongly that they should be paid for the work they provide.
So for Millennials and Generation Z it appears money is the most powerful motivator for work. If you’re prone to stereotyping, you might argue it’s their famed sense of entitlement.
But in their defense, it could just be that they have the confidence to ask for what they deserve. And let’s be honest, maybe they just need the cash more than their more financially secure elders.
Ironically, while many of our respondents would prefer to be paid themselves, many of them are more than happy to take advantage of deep discounts provided by others.
44% of respondents admitted that they have taken advantage of unpaid work provided by relatives or friends themselves.
And considering that more than 90% of respondents work for free themselves, 44% could be a significant underestimate.
It could be that they don’t want to own up to it. There’s a contradiction in wanting to be paid for the work you do while taking advantage of free work yourself.
Our suspicion is that this evidence of a survey phenomenon known as underreporting. People don’t want to admit undesirable behaviors.
But whether it’s helping grandma with a little financial planning or catering your cousin’s wedding, do people ever get anything in return?
Turns out, most recipients of free services do show their gratitude.
86% of respondents said that people expressed their gratitude in a way other than monetary payment. Sadly, that also means an unfortunate 14% of people got nothing at all.
But for those who do get the thanks they deserve, is a box of chocolates or a bottle of wine really enough?
Motivation and remuneration for working for free
Let's face it, we don't always get paid for the work we do for our loved ones. And neither do we always want to. Thankfully though, people do show their gratitude in other ways.
Here’s a breakdown of what our respondents reported getting in return for that free favor:
- Words of thanks—77%
- A gift—40%
- The promise of a free service in return—24%
- A personal recommendation of their services to others—12%
In a sense, people aren’t really getting all that much in return—especially if we consider the fact that as humans we naturally expect reciprocity.
That said, it seems many of us are happy to provide free services out of pure altruism.
As many as 75% of respondents who happened to work for free admit that they simply wanted to help. Though it’s worth emphasizing, people who have good relationships with their family dominated this group.
But the brutal truth is that work isn’t only about good intentions. Most of us still have to earn money and all of that time and goodwill can come at a cost.
Time is money—how many hours a year do we work for free?
Of course, this is just an average, some people lose much more.
Our research showed that many respondents who provided free services to relatives or friends spent more than 50 or even 100 hours a year on such work.
Let that sink in for a minute. More than 70 billion.
I know what you’re thinking, how is that possible? Here’s how we came to that figure:
- According to census data, there are around 209 million adult Americans.
- Let’s assume that like our respondents, 93% of them provide free services to family and friends. That gives us a total of 194 million people.
- Then let’s assume each of those 194 million provide services worth $371 annually, as per the figure we’ve just discussed.
- That gives us a total value of seventy-one billion nine hundred seventy-four million bucks.
That sort of money would win you 13th spot on the 2021 Forbes billionaires list.
So we’ve established that all that free work is actually worth a heck of a lot of money. But this doesn’t paint the full picture. Keep in mind that people who provide services to family or friends also incur other costs.
Among those who provided free services, as many as 71% did it after hours, losing valuable leisure time.
And every eighth respondent admitted that they’ve had to refuse paid work because they were providing a free service to relatives or friends.
What’s more, it's not usually a one-time favor.
Almost one in ten respondents told us that their relatives often ask them for a free service related to their professional skills or education. With another 3% saying that it happens very often.
41% said that it happens occasionally, and only 30% said it happened rarely.
All told, 82% of respondents reported encountering requests for free services.Only 18% have never received a request for this type of help from their relatives.
You’ll recall though that 93% of respondents said they have worked for free for family and friends. So presumably in some cases they provide their assistance without being asked.
Moreover, only 36% of respondents said they’d refused to perform a favor for relatives or friends due to lack of payment.
Interestingly, men (38%) refuse slightly more often than women (35%). And people who own their own business are the most assertive of all, with 63% reporting they’ve refused to work for free.
You get what you pay for
It seems the vast majority of people believe their work should be paid for. However, they differ in how much they expect to receive.
77% of respondents said that professional work for close family members should be paid.
Among them, 17% were willing to work at cost, 26% at the usual market rate, 21% for a price lower than the usual market rate, and 13% who’d demand a higher price than usual.
There is a significant difference in opinion on this subject between different age groups. People aged 39 and older seem to be more willing to work for free. 27% of them do not support charging for work for close family members.
But among respondents under the age of 39, this percentage was only 16%.
And it seems the further the kinship is, the less often we want to work for free. As many as 91% of the respondents agreed to the idea of charging for providing services to distant relatives. From this group, 14% were willing to work at cost, 27% at a price below the market rate, and 38% at the usual market rate.
A slightly higher percentage, 92%, believe that working for friends should also be paid.
So it seems the closer the relationship is, the more willing we are to work for free. Or it could just be that more distant relatives and friends are more numerous than close family, and we stand to lose more if we offer free services to all and sundry.
Providing free professional services to family and friends is an individual decision. Money isn’t everything, and you have to keep in mind that the satisfaction from the help provided and the gratitude of loved ones can be more valuable than any payment.
And the most important advice we can give is to always be grateful for all that free help. Offer something in return if you can.
It doesn’t have to be money, even an offer of providing free services yourself is a great way of saying thank you. By combining generosity with reciprocity, we’ll keep the wheels of the free labor economy turning for everyone.
To finish off, here are the main conclusions of our study:
- More than 93% of people provided unpaid work for family or friends.
- This type of work takes an average of 15 hours a year.
- Free work for family and friends is most often motivated by a simple willingness to help.
- More than 77% believe that professional work for close family should be paid.
- As many as 91% expect remuneration for work from distant relatives, and 92% from friends.
The findings presented were obtained by surveying 803 Americans using a bespoke online polling tool. All respondents included in the study passed an attention-check question. They were asked a series of questions related to their opinions on providing free services to family and friends. These included yes/no questions, scale-based questions relating to levels of agreement with a statement, questions that permitted the selection of multiple options from a list of potential answers, and questions that allowed open responses.
The data we are presenting rely on self-reports from respondents. As experience is subjective, we understand that there are many potential limitations with self-reported data as some participants and their answers might be affected by recency, selective memory, attribution, exaggeration, self-selection, non-response, or voluntary response bias.
Some questions and responses have been rephrased or condensed for clarity and ease of understanding for readers. In some cases, the percentages presented may not add up to 100 percent; depending on the case, this is either due to rounding or due to responses of “neither/neutral/unknown” not being presented.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Usual Weekly Earnings Of Wage And Salary Workers First Quarter 2021"
- Fernandes P., "'Family Discount'? When and How to Say No to Freebie Requests"
- Forbes World’s Billionaires List The Richest in 2021
- Lavrakas, P., “Underreporting: Encyclopedia of Survey Research Methods”
- United States Demographic Statistics
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