Every now and then I write about work and careers on Squawkfox. You’ve got to earn money before you save it, invest it, or spend it. Go ahead and read about resumes, cover letters, and careers on this blog.

At some point in your career you may be asked to work for nothing, nadda, zilch. I have. The ask generally goes something like this:

“We love your work so we’re inviting you to join us on an exciting new project/venture/website/thing — it’s going to be huge! No compensation is involved, but the exposure could be very good.”

Exposure?

Don’t be fooled. The exposure ask isn’t just limited to writers, designers, photographers, or other creative types looking to build a buff portfolio, so beware. I’ve conversed with business analysts, programmers, PR people, childcare minders, decluttering specialists, freelancers, contractors, and self-employed small business people who are constantly asked to toil for zilch in exchange for exposure, fame, and fortune.

Excellent. But how do you eat and pay the bills with exposure? You can’t.

As a fairly creative person (with a somewhat dirty mind) I often dream up ways to earn a living by exposing oneself. Trench coats are cheap, a sexy pair of stilettos is simple to find, and a venue with enough eyeballs (like a sports stadium) could do the trick. Tattooing my book title or blog name across my a$$ could earn me some sweet exposure in the press too — for being a lunatic. I won’t build a respectable customer base with this nonsense though, so I’m taking a pass on promises of exposure. And you should too. Here’s why:

1. Exposure rarely pans out for the peon working for free. Sorry. But I’ve been that peon, and I’ve never landed a respectable gig by giving it up for nothing. The companies requesting your free services aren’t looking to hire you in the future — they’re cheap, and making moolah from your free labor is really good business for them.

2. You’ve set your hourly rate at nothing. It’s impossible to negotiate a fair wage or salary after setting your expectation for compensation at zilch. At best you’ll earn a pittance, and that’s the pits.

3. You can’t quantify exposure. I’m a mathy person and I love to crunch real data. Getting paid in real dollars is real data, and delivering a story to a client is a measurable output in my line of work. But I’ve yet to figure out how to measure fair compensation in exposure. Has the client succeeded in ‘exposure compensation’ if I get a phone call, a blog visitor, or a pat on the back? Or do I get to work free again for more exposure?

4. You can’t cash exposure. At some point you’ll need to pay the bills, feed your kids, and cover the rent. I challenge you to pay the phone bill by promising your creditor a little exposure. ‘Nuff said.

5. Your vanity is being stroked. It feels pretty good when someone with credentials and the appearance of power offers you a potential career-boosting shot, right? Get over yourself. Being invited into a ‘special arrangement’ with a select list of professionals is marketing speak designed to part you from your talent for nothing. If you’re worth being placed on a special list, then you’re worth being paid. Kudos.

6. Consider the company. Whenever a legitimate business asks me for a freebie, I consult this Should I work for free? visual guide by illustrator Jessica Hische. Not only is the gal hilarious, but she’s right on target. Take this gem:

“Just because a business isn’t profitable, that doesn’t make them a non-profit.”

And this one:

“The word ‘start-up’ is used pretty loosely by businesses to get you to charge them less.”

I’m often fed a line about limited budgets from big profitable companies, but I’m rarely asked to work for free by small business people like myself. Fellow freelancers and honest professionals know the score, and we pay each other in cash when the job gets done. You should expect the same.

Maybe work for free

I’m not backtracking here, but I do think there are a few instances when busting your butt for nothing is OK. But there are rules, people.

1. Your family and friends. I’ve got a small family and a few very close friends, so when they ask me for a little lovin’ I’m giving it up freely. But be wary if you’re related to a group of freeloaders constantly looking for time-consuming handouts and pulling emotional strings — you need to pay the bills too.

2. Student Internships. Learning the ropes for little to no pay can give a student a lot of value — especially if the line of work turns out to be a dud. Save yourself from entering (or switching to) a miserable career by doing a very short ‘knowledge collecting’ internship. A week or two should be enough time — anything longer term is unpaid labor and you could be taken advantage of by an employer who should be paying you.

3. Volunteering, Charity. Working without pay for a charity or non-profit can be a rewarding experience when the cause is near to your heart — sometimes. Be smart about it though. Check your country, state, or province’s registered charity listings to confirm whether an organization legitimately needs your help or if you’re being taken for an unpaid ride. Most charities have budgets, you know.

4. A ‘Try Out’ gig. If you want to play ball and you’ve never been on an official team, chances are you’ll need to ‘try out’ with the other no-names to make a pitch. I once got suited up for a ‘try out’ gig when I applied for a student public relations job without a portfolio.

Since I had never written a press release, I needed to prove to my prospective employer that I had the skills to get the job done. So I wrote a series of press releases for free. I had a caveat though — if the boss liked what she saw, then I’d land the student position with fair compensation.

Don’t get taken advantage of when doing a ‘try out’ gig for free. Know what you want (and need) from the freebie gig to make a payment deal. Writing a few free press releases cost me a night’s work, and I landed the job by showing the boss I could deliver the goods. Keeping my free work to a single and small task kept things professional, and I ultimately got paid for my efforts.

5. Your own blog, website, or thing. Giving away the goods via your website, blog, or some other thing is allowed. I do this here on Squawkfox because it’s where I get my jollies and no corporation is making money off my efforts. In fact, your own blog/website/thing could serve as the perfect portfolio showcasing your work/skill/talent and land you paid work. How do you think I landed my book 397 Ways To Save Money? HarperCollins Canada read my blog and offered me the job.

Most days I would rather have cash over cachet, and exposure. How about you?

UPDATE: Kevin Press over at Today’s Economy Blog wrote a response to this post — check out Working for free for a different view.

Question: Under what circumstances would you work for free?