The Bitch Slap: Stop Using the C-Word

bitch slap cheap I have an idea of what you were afraid to find when you clicked on whatever link brought you here today and while I’m known for not pulling any punches when it comes to my choice of words, today’s post isn’t about the see-you-next-Tuesday. It’s about a word we hear (and say) too often and we need to:

  • in many cases, eradicate from our lexicon, or
  • stop misusing.

That word, my friends, is cheap. You’re going to sit down and listen to this shit because this is a Bitch Slap long overdue. First, we’re going to dish about cheap in the eyes of a business owner and then we’re going to talk about things from the consumer/client perspective.

On Cheapening Ourselves

There are two sides to cheap when it comes to being a business owner: how prospective clients treat us and how we treat others. Every business owner knows the ear-piercing sound of a client who wants to get something on the cheap. It’s not unlike someone putting an Avril Lavigne song on repeat on your iPod and deleting all of your other music – annoying mental flypaper that pretty much ruins something you love very much in an instant.

Don’t people see what I’m worth?

How could they ask that?

Are they shopping me around?

But it’s time to insert some tough love (and love that I’ve learned the hard way): we cheapen ourselves.

Early on in my career, I took a gig doing copywriting for those SMS horoscope message services. Text-a-day, limited to 100 characters…my job was to come up with something witty to say about Scorpios in 33 different ways. For ten cents per message.

You read that correctly.

It was one of the things I did to get work as a writer and validate the fact that Hey – I’m a professional writer! Look at what I get paid to do! Yeah – here’s the thing: nobody gave a shit. I haven’t once used that laughable gig as a reference or sample anywhere. It’s never gotten me a lick more work. It just took up my time for a paltry $100 payday once a month.

When businesses begin, we think we’re doing the right thing by taking work at a lesser rate so we can build our street cred. However, what we’re generally doing most of the time is cheapening ourselves. We all have to start somewhere, but if you’re going to take work at a sweatshop rate, make sure it’s something you can:

  • put in a portfolio AND use as a client testimonial
  • create a white paper from
  • put on your website
  • show off with pride.

Later in our careers is where we do the real damage to ourselves, though. We’ve built our business and have a delightful array of satisfied clients and we send out our bids and show our wares with a commensurate price tag attached. Then, we get the call/email: sticker shock. Can you do it for less?

Why the hell would you say yes to that question?! We don’t walk into Best Buy and point to a 52″ flat screen and ask the guy in blue if he can give it to us for $400 off the sticker price. We don’t ask an orthopedic surgeon if he can fix up a shattered ankle for less than the proposed $16,000. Why do we let prospective clients treat us as if our proposals and bids are merely launching pads for a Middle Eastern bazaar-type negotiation?

There are reasons we all might take work for less than our usual rate (on occasion) and those reasons are our own. We cheapen ourselves way too often and it’s time we started using the word “value” and all its iterations in place of discounts. Because here’s the thing: when we give discounts, we’re doing the same work for less money. On the cheap. Perhaps the smarter route is to design a less expensive product or service and sell that Toyota to clients who can’t afford the BMW. It’s not cheaper – it’s different and has a price attached to it that reflects its value.

But as business owners, we’re always looking for a better margin so we can build our business the smart way. If I buy a widget for $30 and can sell it for $75 – maybe I’m thinking that’s good business for my business. But if that $30 widget is a piece of shit that breaks and jams my phone lines with customer complaints, is it really good business? The next best widget maker comes in at $45 per widget, killing my margin by $15 per sale. But hey – it doesn’t break, my phone lines don’t blow us and customers are now sending their friends.

On Cheapening Others

We can always find something we want to buy for less money. Consumer products are easy to price shop because it’s the exact same thing across the board. When it comes to intellectual property, experience, tone, voice and style, however – you can price shop that package all you want but you’re not going to get the good stuff for cheap. Keep that in mind when it comes to your contractors, employees and other vendors (and get ready to lose the good stuff to people who are willing to pay more). You should never pay more than something is worth and worth can change over time – but don’t cheapen others because you’re looking to make a few more bucks.

Cheap in the Marketplace

There’s a reason why Nordstrom’s has one of the most well-known shoe departments across the retail space: they’ll take anything back at any time. They are not, however, in the business of carrying cheap shoes. They carry well-known brands known for quality construction and great consumer reputations. It’s not a discount shoe store. A further distinction on cheap versus value is this:

If I’m looking for  a great value, I’ll go to the sale rack at Nordie’s or to DSW Shoe Warehouse.

If I’m looking for cheap shoes, I’ll go to Payless Shoe Source or Walmart.

There is a distinct difference between cheap and getting a great value and it has to do with brand integrity. Here are some definitions of “cheap” from

  1. costing very little; relatively low in price; inexpensive: a cheap dress.
  2. costing little labor or trouble: Words are cheap.
  3. charging low prices: a very cheap store.
  4. of little account; of small value; mean; shoddy: cheap conduct; cheap workmanship.

I think it’s odd how we don’t have a better grasp on the differentiation between cheap and good value, as each have their place. I use this example often, but I’m not looking for cosmetic surgery. I’m looking for a good value, and that’s a function of surgeon reputation, examples of his or her work, office demeanor and how comfortable I am with this person putting me under anesthesia and cutting up my body. (No, I’m not shopping for a surgeon, but it’s a fine example.) Moms aren’t looking for cheap car seats – they’re looking for ones with great safety ratings and if they find it on sale – booyah.

Stop Being Cheap for the Wrong Reasons

I’ve gotten better at this over the years. Growing up in a single-parent household, we ate cheap. We shopped cheap. But as I grew up, my mom taught me the awesomeness of great value. Designer clothes could be had for less and I quickly learned the difference between cheap and great value. You know the difference between cheap and a great value – it’s tangible, visible. Cheap ends up in the garbage or the bags we take to Goodwill a couple times a year. It’s in the pile of crap we keep in the garage or the closet (because that’s where put crap). Cheap is crap and crap is cheap. Treat yourself better and learn from mistakes. Cheap belongs scrawled in Sharpie on the walls of bathroom stalls, not in your business plan. Value? That’s a mainstay. Stop misusing the words as they’re not interchangeable. Make sure you and the people you do business with are intimately familiar with how those two differ.

You’ve been slapped.

Erika “I may be easy but I ain’t cheap” Napoletano

75 replies
  1. Jeff Mouttet
    Jeff Mouttet says:

    Love, love, love this. Wahoo’s Fish Tacos has kind of the same philosophy, “It’s full price, or it’s free”. They think that if they discount their food, they discount themselves, and I think they’re right. Your value proposition is what makes you who you are, why would you discount that? Great article, love your stuff.

  2. Pop
    Pop says:

    Oooo, this one was good. I always enjoy slaps from you.

    And you’re right, the two are usually interchangeably used, but just b/c something is cheap doesn’t mean it’s a value nor is something that isn’t cheap necessarily valuable.

    As the saying goes, “eat a cheap lunch and pay for it later with diarrhea.” Ok, maybe that’s not a saying; it’s just something I made up. But you get the point.

  3. davinabrewer
    davinabrewer says:

    Well said Erika. I hate it when affordable is misused as cheap, when “FREE” is tossed about regarding social media or DIY marketing, when people expect quality and value done on the cheap (your haggling, negotiating scenarios are spot-on). Doesn’t work that way. Sure there are cheaper alternatives out there for anything, but the value I get from my Apple products or dept. store makeup (bought at bonus times) or brand name clothes (clearance racks) is what matters to me. Nice slap, FWIW.

  4. Bryce Alan Katz
    Bryce Alan Katz says:

    An uncle of mine once told me:

    “Be *that guy*. You know, the one people recommend when they need something done. You want to be the one people say, ‘Don’t worry about what he charges – he’s worth every penny!’ when they recommend you.”

    I’ve tried to keep that in mind over the years.

    It kinda slipped lately, though, when a new (and larger) competitor setup shop two blocks down. One month and a pointless discount promotion later, I definitely needed this reminder. So thanks, Erika. It was easier to take than a kick to the nuts … and will be more productive to boot!

  5. Darien Goldman
    Darien Goldman says:

    I’d rather have 5 very nice pieces of high-quality clothing than 20 cheap things from WalMart. This, as a society, is difficult to learn because we are force fed “More is Better” as a mantra. The more we have the better we are? Stuff defining us is one of the biggest problems I’ve seen everywhere, and kids grow up thinking the more they have the less they have to do for themselves. I still believe personality and intellect carries more weight than money and ‘stuff’, but that’s becoming more rare.

  6. Lady Estrogen
    Lady Estrogen says:

    However, I think I was hoping for the OTHER C word, to be honest. HAHA. JK.
    Ya get what you pay for, I always tell my hubby; since I came free, his expectations shouldn’t be very high.

  7. Phyllis Nichols
    Phyllis Nichols says:

    Now, if we could just stop using the F-word too!

    (free of course!)

    You rock.
    I’ve stopped apologizing for my prices (and raised them) and I’m getting more (not less) more business. *headsmack* for not doing it sooner.

    Customer feedback has improved too. I’m providing more value, they pay for it, and we all end up happier!

  8. says:

    I think you are great! You always put things into perspective. I have people ask me ALL the time if they can buy a dress for less than marked, what is soooo frustrating is that other businesses WILL discount the heck out of their product so then you feel forced to compete on price when really Service is what I want to compete on. I think great service is important, along with a fair price. I don’t want to overpay, I love a sale rack but have never asked the sales people or owner to reduce something for me just because I cannot afford it. Don’t try on thing you cannot afford! Okay stepping off my soapbox. Thanks I feel better.

      • davinabrewer
        davinabrewer says:

        To which I must add: quit expecting the stone soup to taste/perform like lobster bisque. Or per John’s comment, think that Toyota will be the same luxury, deliver the same resale value as the BMW. If I can afford it, I may opt for the hotel with the location, the service, the amenities once in a while; if not it’s the Clean ‘n Cheap. FWIW.

  9. Erica Allison
    Erica Allison says:

    I just had to go take a peek at the shattered ankle shots – ugh.
    Great bitch slap and so timely, I can’t believe it. I’ve been beating this horse now for the past 24 hours…do I charge enough? Am I boxing myself in a corner with my current rates? Should I offer items at a lesser rate for a different value or outcome? I’m sure everyone I’ve harassed lately with this topic would like to send you a thank you note right now for helping me out!

    I do adjust my rates on occasion if I feel that the client is going to grow and I’m part of that trajectory, or I get some huge value in return (i.e., great portfolio item, free haircuts, etc), but I don’t do it simply because someone wants it done ‘cheaper’.

    I’m with you! Go for value, not for cheap!

  10. Mem21
    Mem21 says:

    probably an iStock photo above – but spelling mistake with your – should be you are. Someone hired a cheap sign maker! Great article – planning to share it with the boss to help price our consultation services.

  11. John Falchetto
    John Falchetto says:

    Having lived in the Middle Eastern bazar (Egypt, and almost every country between there and Iran) for 10 years I can assure you one thing works, hold your ground.

    The ones who come for cheap, you REALLY don’t want as clients. But I agree with your point that if a client can’t afford the BMW, sell him the Toyota, at the Toyota price.

    Expectations of value with cheap are always very very distorted. Thanks for reminding me of this.

  12. Rich Mackey
    Rich Mackey says:

    You’re spot on with this one. If you keep selling the same thing for less money eventually it has no value whatsoever. And you’re broke. Getting something for less in the marketing world requires compromise on the part of the one asking for it for less.

    Case in point: I have a very good friend who is a designer and I try not to ask him for free design work – but the last time I did (for a blog logo), he had rules:

    1. Aside from my brief of the project I had no creative control.
    2. He would give me NO MORE than 5 choices.
    3. He could use it however he liked, short of selling it to another client/putting it on a product.
    4. I had no control of timing.

    I agreed to the terms and got a great logo (obviously I trusted him implicitly). What did he get? A new design style for his portfolio and published in Creative Arts Design Annual. We both considered it a win. He also knows I’ll refer him to others when needed and he redesigned a blog header for a work colleage – for fair market value.

    Main point: I was willing to give in to his demands. He knew he could eek value out of my free project.

  13. Bhaskar Sarma
    Bhaskar Sarma says:

    I chuckled at your bazaar line.

    Living in India I see haggling happening all the time. However, and this is crucial, you see this haggling at makeshift stalls, roadside vendors or Sunday markets where the value of individual transactions is low.

    You won’t see haggling at upmarket stores, ever. Based on my totally unscientific observations I have a hypothesis that this quibbling over price is inversely proportional to the monetary value of the transaction.

    Moral of the story:don’t sell salad spinners. Sell BMWs

  14. Verilliance
    Verilliance says:

    You might be interested in a post I wrote recently on “pricing and the placebo effect”. When we reduce prices, not only does the buyer perceive a lower value, their brain experience changes so much that they actually EXPERIENCE lower value. It’s crazy!

    Here’s the link:

    Coincidentally I also got an email today from a colleague who is trying to break into business for herself and has made this mistake and offered her services for free. Her client is now second-guessing everything she does. I gave her my best advice, but I’m curious what you would advise someone should do when they have no experience in a given area, but they want to gain some. You gave some general advice above, but what can a newbie do to get clients when they have no experience to prove their value?

    • The Redhead
      The Redhead says:

      Well, getting clients early on usually means lower rates – a fair trade for less experience. Give yourself a goal, however, that “I’ll do this much until this date and then I’m going to raise my rates.” You’ll find ways to phase certain clients out and even ways to gradually raise the rates on existing clients. A 50% hike won’t keep them, but a 10% hike every 6 months should retain the ones worth having 🙂 Hope that helps!

  15. PJ Mullen
    PJ Mullen says:

    In business, as in life, many things down to the old adage, you can pick two: service, quality or price. I learned this lesson early in my career racing around downtown Boston to give presentations on the Russian equities markets to fund managers. I used to buy Bostonian shoes because I could easily afford them. They were cheap, and I went through a pair every few months. Then one day my boss turned me on to Allen Edmonds. At $300 a pair it was six times what I paid for Bostonians. However, 15 years later, I still have them and they are like wearing slippers they are so comfortable. I don’t even want to calculate how much I’ve saved on dress shoes by smartening up and paying for quality.

    I also used to teach this to my loan officers back when I was slinging mortgages. Even though I don’t care for baseball, I’ll use the small ball analog when it came to my sales strategy. I preferred to have loan officers that had 10 loans in their pipeline at $2,500 gross commission per loan than ones with three $8-9,000 fees. The bigger money loans tended to be more problematic and fell through far to easily. If they lost one loan, it killed 33% of their pipeline, whereas I’d need another loan officer to lose 3 or 4 to get to the same fallout rate. This meant we had to chose our potential customer carefully (higher credit scores, better loan to values, etc., no subprime crap) and offer a fair market deal.

    To accomplish this I taught them to sell by offering the customer the same loan two ways. The first was they would pay us our fee upfront. That way the customer would know how much we were making on their loan to build trust since we were an online lender. The second was with no fee and a higher rate where the investor we sold the loan to would compensate us through yield spread. We also guaranteed our fees (the specific numbers we highlighted on all our good faith estimates) would not change at closing from the signed estimate they returned to us. If it did, I as the manager, would waive it.

    We built a lot of our business this way and 9 times out of 10 the customer let the investor pay us since the rate difference was tens of dollars per month rather than a few grand up front. We set our price and didn’t budge from them because we knew we made a fair offer and the time it would take to complete wasn’t worth less. When a customer would walk, especially when they told us they were getting a ridiculously better offer than ours, we’d tell them good luck, talk to you in a week. Was that arrogant, sure. But we got a lot of calls back when those too good to be true deals turned out to be shit on a shingle.

    Long story longer, even now as I play part time hack, I quote my rates and don’t budget from them. I know what I’m capable of and I have a decent track record. They can go hire some maven/guru/expert/jackwagon that will get them a million facebook likes in 96 seconds and watch the whole thing blow up on them for all I care.

    • The Redhead
      The Redhead says:

      Again, PJ – you’re here wit the best use of “jackwagon” I’ve ever seen. You command that word like I pwn the f-bomb. Hat tip, good sir. And you speak many volumes of truth coming from a gal who has never done anything other than sell something for a living.

  16. Bill Dorman
    Bill Dorman says:

    Ok, yes I thought it would be the other ‘c’ word……………..what, I meant crap…………..

    I sell insurance; talk about getting beat like a red-headed…….er, uh, I mean like a stubborn old mule. I deal in the larger commercial arena and our platform is all about establishing value. The ‘cost’ of insurance is only one piece of the total cost. You have to be able to establish value and once you do this cost is not the deciding factor. Not everybody buys into this and those are not the ones you want to spend your time and resources with.

    It’s called walk away power and you have to have it……….

    Relevant post; good info.

  17. Billy Delaney
    Billy Delaney says:

    Yep! You got this right indeed.
    I’m from Ireland. Couldn’t understand garages full of cheap rubbish!
    Rather own one $75 buck shirt than three $19.99.
    Again you have laid down a great market here.

  18. Mark Harai
    Mark Harai says:

    Ohh, I liked that slap : )

    Title caught my attention real quick too… brilliant.

    I think the cheap mentality comes from one of two things; ignorance and not knowing your true worth, or your work sucks and you’ll take anything just to make a buck.

    I’ve always earned an income on performance compensation. Making things happen. Generating dough. The smallest override I ever made was 2%. It started out a bit slow, but I managed to out performed every manager in the organization and 2% on $100 million dollars was the best money I ever made working for somebody else. Not bad money to make 20 years ago!

    My whole life has been being compensated for what I produce. When you have a mindset like that, the sky is the limit. I mean, how much money do you want to make? Millions are made in the same time it takes to make $100 month. Results are what dictate performance based compensation.

    I would never let a client dictate how much money he was going to pay me. I know my worth, and I’m expensive. But the money someone pays me will be attached to performance. If I deliver X and you agree that paying me X is worth it, its a good deal for both parties. Period. Easy.

    I’m with you Erica – lose the “C” word and get paid what you’re worth. Only you know what that number is.


  19. Francisco Pavez
    Francisco Pavez says:

    I’m going to post a link to this slap on my website. I don’t think I could say it any better.

    Just today I got an email from a translation agency saying that they were not going to pay for repetitions anymore, I wrote back that it was fine, I would just cut them out of the text. I don’t think I’ll be getting any work from them 🙂

  20. Ellen Berg
    Ellen Berg says:

    My hubby is slowly learning this lesson. He was afraid his friends would be upset if he stopped doing free graphic design and marketing work for them, but they have been happy to step up and pay. Now I’d love to see him raise his hourly rate to match his skill set and the market rate, but *that* has everything to do with recognizing one’s personal value.

    Big love for this post!

  21. Kris10na ☮♥☺
    Kris10na ☮♥☺ says:

    I totally agree with this. I have almost the same line on my draft saying “I’m easy breezy, I may be low maintenance but I never said I’m cheap.” I do think it’s such a loser word for people to actually use that as an adjective describing one’s self, it is too degrading.

    Thanks for this bitch slap I might be nearing on finalizing my entry about not being cheap 🙂

  22. Frankz Jacobsen
    Frankz Jacobsen says:

    Great article! Don’t sell price, sell value, delivery a high level of service and build customer loyalty…..

  23. Dfrieson
    Dfrieson says:

    My friend, @emrosario, emailed me this article as we had a similar conversation earlier. Great topic because as a new small business owner who does PR and social media work, I have been grappling with offering affordable services and negotiating prices. As well, I have been challenged with why I felt the need to do pro bono work to build my portfolio. Free don’t pay the bills and free work will eventually kill you and free can’t pay the funeral costs. Free just don’t pay. Maybe I should pay you to be my, “Business Ain’t Free” mentor!

  24. SusieBlackmon
    SusieBlackmon says:

    Loved your post (and, of course, the ‘c’ word inference). Lately it seems that, because of Groupon and Facebook in particular, the public is being ‘trained’ to expect a freebie or a deal, regardless, and this, IMHO, tends to muddy the waters a bit. Quality tends to rise to the top; but good heavens at all the ‘experts’ out there declaring their value based on their horribly inflated, albeit unsubstantiated, egos. The other side of the coin is that true, not self-proclaimed, value will continue, over time, stand out like a neon sign. In the meantime, keep the muck boots handy.

  25. Beakspeak
    Beakspeak says:

    Thank you, Erica Napoletano. There are some really great ideas here, and it is heartening to read about the difference between cheap and good value.

    All best wishes,


  26. needmoremoney
    needmoremoney says:

    Actually I did walk into a bestbuy and offer $150 less for a tv that was already marked down over $600. And I got the TV. Cash talks well, and my timing was excellent. My neighbors dog was hit by a car two days ago, the vet said $6000 to fix the leg, they didn’t have $6000, the bill automatically magically changed to $1500. That all being said, if I more surplus funds I would pay without question, but so many are struggling, we have to ask for the deals.

  27. Bridget Fisher
    Bridget Fisher says:

    You could also simply quote Chris Farley; “You can get a good look at a T Bone by sticking your head up a Bulls ass, but I’d rather take the butchers word for it!”

    I learned the greatest business practices from a company I worked for when I lived in San Diego, Pacific Dental Services (out of Irvine). We believe we were the greatest provider of dental services anywhere and that we also provided quality options, restorations, etc., and were a bit pricier than our competitors BUT we showed value, and we DID NOT desire or market to people and areas that didn’t draw in the WalMart, Big Lots, Pic N Save type of client, we desired the Target and Nordstrom client, we don’t haggle we gave quality not cheap restorations PERIOD!


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