• Resolving Problems

Am I Obliged To Give Free Services To Family And Friends?

Published: September 20, 2020 | Last Updated: August 24, 2023 By | Reply Continue Reading
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A semi-retired couple is often asked to devote their time and skills to providing free services to people they know who don’t want to pay professionals. They have a hard time saying NO.


Dear Friendship Doctor,

My husband and I have been semi-retired for about five years. Both of us do some freelance work here and there, enough to keep us busy when we’re not enjoying hobbies or travel, or spending time with the kids. 

My husband, an architect, is often asked by friends and family members if he can design new additions for their houses or do home renovation drawings for them—almost always as a favor, without payment. They seem to think that he has all the time in the world and that he doesn’t need to be paid. They don’t realize how much time and work is involved, nor do they understand the responsibility he takes for creating signed drawings for their free projects. 

My husband isn’t looking for extra work or more things to keep busy. He retired for a reason. When he tries to refer these friends to working architects who charge a fee for their services, they always tell him they can’t afford to pay anyone. In other words, they want it for free, and they are hurt if my husband declines.

I’m in a similar situation at times. Since I do freelance public relations work, friends often ask me to proofread their press releases (as a favor) or do some pro bono writing or editing for them. I would never ask a retired professional or tradesperson to provide free services to me, just because we are friends or family. It would be great if you could address this topic, and give us some tips on how to politely decline these requests to work for free.

Signed, Kate


Hi Kate,

Gosh, sticky situations like these can make anyone feel uncomfortable. But clearly, substituting “non-paid work” for “paid employment” isn’t a sensible retirement plan for anyone. You’ve earned this season of your life.

Here are a few tips to help you gently turn down these requests:

1-Remind yourself that you have every right to say NO. You are not obligated to take on work for free for anyone. 

2-Assume that these individuals just don’t know better than to ask. Be clear and unequivocal in saying NO, you simply can’t do it. Explain that It is a time commitment you can’t afford to make and you routinely turn down requests like this. 

3-Explain that after many years of active work, you and your husband have made a conscious decision—and commitment to one another—to slow down to pursue your hobbies and to spend more time with your family and each other.

4-You might add that you are flattered they admire your work and can suggest a talented “someone else for the job.” If they respond that they can’t afford that individual, tell them that under the circumstances, they may need to reconsider taking on such a costly project.

5-Remind them that your decision shouldn’t be construed as a reflection on the feelings you have for them but you need to preserve your retirement decision. 

Of course, if the relationship is a close one and it is truly a “small” favor that entails minimal effort and time, I’m sure you’ll want to help but be sure to draw boundaries and turn down requests for free services that don’t feel comfortable.

Best, Irene


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