$50 Code – Less Money, More Headache

$50 Code - Less Money, More Headache

I’ve stumbled upon a lot of upsetting Twitter conversations lately. I know these people aren’t TRYING to be upsetting, but it has that effect on designers and developers who make a living from their business.

Some people think you should only pay $50 for a custom blog design.

Before I dig into this, let me clarify one thing, when I say custom blog design I mean it.

  • I don’t mean custom graphics installed on the Twenty Fifteen theme.
  • I don’t mean a pre-made child theme that has a custom header banner.
  • I don’t mean tweaking some CSS on an existing theme.

I mean a completely unique design built on 100% custom code.

With that out of the way…

Are designers overcharging for their services?

Those Twitter conversations I was talking about—they were people claiming that designers overcharge. They laughed at the several-hundred-dollar price tags (never mind the ones in the thousands) and said designers should only be charging $50. They said designer prices were too expensive and inflated, and people shouldn’t be paying a lot of money.

Let’s think about that for a minute…

Complete blog designs (design + code) take anywhere from 5-20 hours to complete, and that often spans over 1-6 weeks depending on back and forth emails and response times. For the sake of this discussion, let’s just say a design takes 10 hours on average.

Now, someone can go to work at McDonald’s for 10 hours and get paid minimum wage. In California, that means they’d earn $90.

And yet, a DESIGNER is expected to spend 10 hours creating a 100% custom theme and only get paid $50? That’s $5 per hour! Let’s say their expenses are $1,000 per month (which is honestly quite low), they’d have to do over 20 full blog designs per month in order to just pay their bills! And once you factor in taxes, they’re actually not making enough to even do that…

Making a WordPress theme is HARD.

Anyone can flip a burger (barring people with disabilities, etc.), that’s why you usually get paid minimum wage for doing it. Not everyone can be a designer/developer.

Being designer takes a combination of talent and learned skill. It takes a lot of experience, an eye for detail, a good sense of typography and spacing.. and so much more!

Being a developer requires that same skill level and attention to detail. You have to learn whole other languages (HTML, CSS, PHP, JavaScript). You also have to learn specific platforms like WordPress and code according to those standards, while also keeping security in mind. And that attention to detail comes in handy when you’ve left off one tiny bracket or semi-colon and suddenly none of your code works.

The less you pay, the more corners get cut.

Like with most things, you get what you pay for.

I’ve seen a lot of custom WordPress themes that don’t abide by even the most basic WordPress coding standards. My guess, these themes are the ones being sold for $50. It’s not necessarily that these developers are cutting corners on purpose (though that may sometimes be the case). I think more often than not it comes down to a lack of experience.

The less you pay, the more likely you’re hiring someone who doesn’t really know what they’re doing. They don’t complete a project with confidence; they just hack bits and pieces together until it seems to work.

“Why don’t my widgets look right?”

This is a really common one. People often fill out a support ticket on my site complaining that their Ultimate Book Blogger widgets don’t look like the demo site. Their images aren’t being resized properly!

Guess what the problem is.

The theme.

In this instance, the theme isn’t coding their widgets properly. They don’t include the widget class name when registering the widget area (this is in the 'before_widget' parameter. By not including this, plugins cannot style their own sidebar widgets at all, so any custom CSS being included by that plugin won’t work.

“JavaScript from my plugin isn’t working!”

Another support ticket I’ve received is people complaining that their spoiler shortcode tags aren’t working properly. These shortcode tags work because of custom JavaScript, which gets included into the theme using the standard WordPress wp_enqueue_script() function. This function hooks into the footer of the theme to include the JavaScript. If this JavaScript isn’t being included, it’s because the theme developer didn’t use the proper wp_footer() function to allow plugins to add JavaScript.

“Why is it so hard to read on my phone?”

If you’re paying $50 for a custom theme, odds are it’s not going to be responsive. Responsive design is more important than ever now, and not just because of people reading on mobiles. Even Google is taking responsiveness into account when ranking websites.

“Does this come with SEO?”

When I code my themes, I do so with SEO in mind. I make sure to use <h1> tags in the right places, <article> tags in other places, and even integrate Schema.org markup when necessary. All of these things help optimize your site for search engines, and thus help you rank better.

The less you pay, the more corners will be cut. Your developer could be skipping this step entirely if they’re only getting paid pennies. I mean, for a $50 theme, why even bother? Especially if they think their client won’t even notice the difference.

“How do I change something?”

Even if you’re not a coder, there may come a time when you want to edit or change something in your theme. Maybe you want to tweak the CSS, which is usually easy enough because at least you can override styles with !important. But what if you want to edit a template? How do you know which bit of code does what?

A good developer will document all of his/her code. They’ll use comments to describe what a file is, what a function is doing, and generally just what’s going on in the code.

But most of those cheap developers don’t do this for a few reasons:

  • Commenting takes time, and since they’re only being paid $50, why bother?
  • They don’t actually know what most of those things are doing! They may know that they need to use the wp_head() function, but they don’t know why, so they can’t leave comments.
  • They didn’t write most of the code themselves, so they don’t even know what it’s doing. The copied bits and pieces from tutorials and templates, but they don’t fully understand them.

Different prices for different values.

If you’re paying $50 for custom work, you should expect to hire someone inexperienced. And if you are a hobbyist, you might be okay with that. But you should anticipate a lower quality of work. You’re hiring someone who’s “just learning” or “just doing this for fun” or “doesn’t have much experience”.

If you’re paying hundreds of dollars for custom work, you should expect to hire an expert. You’re hiring someone who “has a lot of experience” or “has been around the block” or “knows exactly what they’re doing” or “is an expert in the field”.

These are two completely different price points for two different levels of services.

It’s not fair to say that designers and developers are overcharging or “inflating their value”. Any time someone is doing something that you can’t (or don’t want to) do, it’s valuable. And with more experience comes even more value.

“But there NEEDS to be an affordable option!”

One of the biggest arguments I’ve seen is that hobbyists can’t afford to spend hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on custom work, so there “needs” to be an affordable option to accommodate them. Well, I agree, but I think that’s what pre-made themes are for.

This isn’t something we’re entitled to.

We shouldn’t feel ENTITLED to custom work. I’d love to build my own house, but it takes a lot of money, so that’s not in the cards for me. I know that building your own house (or even just owning a house) is a luxury that not everyone gets. It’s something that you earn because you save up for it. A LOT.

Custom themes are the same way. There doesn’t NEED to be an affordable custom theme option just because you can’t afford it or don’t want to spend $900 on it. The designer shouldn’t be put in a position where he/she can’t pay their bills, just so you can have more money left at the end of the month to pay yours.

Doing custom work for ANYTHING takes time, effort, and expertise. And if you have 10 years of experience doing ANYTHING, you shouldn’t be getting paid minimum wage.

You can pay for someone to “learn as they go” or you can pay for someone who already knows what they’re doing.

The average hourly wage for a designer/developer seems to be between $50 and $200 based on my research. So if you want a theme that someone spent an hour putting together, go ahead and pay $50 for it. Just know what you’re getting. Know that the person has less experience. Know that they may be a teenager doing this in their free time.

It’s true that everyone has to start somewhere and there is a learning process. That’s why it’s okay that there are teenage designers or people who are just starting out. It just means that their design skills may not be as refined, and their code may not always work properly.

Just because someone charges hundreds or thousands of dollars doesn’t mean they’re inflating their value. It means that they have a lot of experience and they’re going to do their job REALLY well.

How can a cheap design cost you more money?

My post is largely focused on the development side of making a theme, because that’s mostly what I do these days. But my designer friend Anna Moore has a fantastic post on her blog today detailing exactly how a $50 website costs more than a $900 website.

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I'm a 30-something California girl living in England (I fell in love with a Brit!). My three great passions are: books, coding, and fitness. more »

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    1. I think you’re right, Katrina. They assume it might just be an hour of time, but these things can go on for weeks or even months!

  1. Honestly, for $50, a premade, non-customizable theme is something I would expect. I have a developer license to Elegant Themes (don’t ask me why, I don’t remember what my reasoning was – perhaps plugins) and I can’t even use it because while their themes are pretty and professional-looking, I don’t know or want to google the code to make it “mine.”

    I’m lightly proficient in Illustrator and Photoshop but it still took me days to make a simple design. I can’t imagine being a professional designer and only being paid $50 for something customized. I want that crack they are smoking.

    1. That’s what I would expect too. Premade themes are in the $30 – $80 range. Custom themes are a lot higher than that.

      From what I’ve heard/seen of Elegant Themes, their themes are quite pretty looking, but the admin panel and code is a bit crappy. :/

  2. Even a minimalist theme takes a lot of hours! It’s sad that some people are quick to devalue the work we do. It’s not just slapping on a header and changing a few fonts and colors. Responsive development, quality assurance, IE8 support (argh!!) is a long, exhaustive process.

    Web developers went through a lot of learning to get where they are, and the learning never ends either. For a WordPress developer, I would say that you’re expecting knowledge in at least CSS, jQuery, and PHP. That’s just the bare minumum. Of course, there are also CSS preprocessors, Javascript automaters, and so on, to improve workflow. Those are skills you don’t just pick up in a day.

    I’m not even sure why we have to explain ourselves. 🙁 We have skills not everyone has; we should to be paid for it. We have bills and a family to feed too.

    Raisa recently posted: Operation Magenta
    1. Exactly, Raisa! Even with something minimalistic, a lot of time has to go into typography, spacing, and making it look professional without looking plain.

  3. Unfortunately, the same happens on book design. People think a project (or better, they don’t even think of it as project) should cost $150 or $200, and a cover around $100. That’s why I don’t work for the indie market, and usually just do printed books.

    I’m ok with indie authors DIYing their own book—they just type on Word and hit publish on an automated app—not everybody can afford a custom design, and that’s what technology is for. Although they can’t expect the same results. But people selling the same work for a few bucks just can’t call themselves designers. It takes too much time and talent (and money, of course) to become a Designer, it’s not something you can just dig around some programs (or code cheat sheets) and do it.

    1. I’m sorry that you go through this too. 🙁 It seems like people everywhere are looking to cut corners. They want a CHEAP book design, but they still want it to be amazing. You can’t have it both ways. You either need cheap and “okay” or expensive and great.

  4. This makes perfect sense to me. And seeing as most premade themes cost at least $35, I don’t understand why someone would think a custom theme should cost in the mid-range for a premade. Which is why I bought tweak me… I can customize it enough for a hobby blog and its affordable. And I’d rather it work than pay $50 for a custom I can’t do anything with.

    1. Exactly! Anna has an awesome car analogy on her post. If you see a car for sale for $50, you’re not even going to consider buying it because you know it’s going to be a worthless hunk of metal that you can’t actually drive anywhere. You’ll immediately look at that and think it’s either a scam or just a piece of crap.

      It’s sad that this line of thinking doesn’t seem to carry over into the design world. Some people think they can (and should) get cheap designs that are also professional quality.

  5. I can kind of see their point, but at the same time, $50 is awfully cheap for an entire design. If they need cheap, there are tons of pre-made themes they can choose from, while they save up to get something better.

    I bought your Tweak Me theme when I was out of work and wanting to start a blog to give me something to do besides job hunt. And I thought it was crazy cheap for everything you can do with it! That’s actually what sold me on it. Besides how much you can do with it, I thought there must be some kind of sale going on! *laughs*

    But then, I used to hand-code with HTML my own websites. So I know how much time and effort goes into that sort of thing. Haven’t picked up CSS yet, but maybe one day.

    Silvara recently posted: Giveaways: When Do You Enter?
    1. Yeah I get that it would be nice to have something cheap AND custom AND professional. But sadly it’s just not realistic from the designer’s perspective. 🙁

    1. Yeah I definitely still undercharge, even now. I’m in several designer/developer groups on Facebook, and in those groups I have some of the cheapest prices. Which is funny, because in the book blogging community I have some of the highest.

      The sad thing is that in order to actually get paid what I think I’m worth, I have to move out of the book blogging community. Our community is full of hobbyists and teenagers who either can’t afford to pay a lot, or don’t want to. And I TOTALLY get that. It just means that in order to make decent money I have to move into another industry and target business owners who actually see it as an investment into their business, you know? And thus they can afford more “realistic” prices.

  6. Ashley, yours and Anna’s work are just mindblowingly awesome and I’m so sad that people question why designers like you have such high prices when it’s so obvious in the output you deliver.

    I’ve started to charge higher than before ($75 for a full blog design now compared to $50) but the reason my prices are still much cheaper is because I’m totally an amateur/hobbyist. I know my limitations. I’m unable to offer a responsive design, I use mostly free stock, I know when I wrap up a project it’s not entirely perfect. When I’ve installed a client’s theme, I always have a disclaimer that there might be some errors I missed (that of course I will try to rectify if they let me know). That alone shows my inadequacy to deliver the kind of service you do. I wish I could price higher if only to actually get paid the time/effort I put into a blog design (I spend much much longer hours working on a design than you do because I unfortunately am not a coding ninja) but I know my mastery is still meagre. I’m trying to get much better of course but it’ll take awhile before I can confidently price my designs at the realistic rate that skillful designers deserve to get paid.

    The other reason I could afford to put my prices so low is because I’m not doing this for a living or to pay the bills. I’d probably have died of hunger from being broke already if that were the case. I do blog designs for extra funds because I have a lot of expenses (a.k.a. BOOKS). The blog design work I do now is a learning experience for me so I’m okay with being paid minimal if only to have some pocket money.

    Anyway, I admire the work you do and hope people start realizing the true value of your blog designs, Ashley!

    1. I definitely respect and understand what you’re doing Hazel. We all have to start somewhere, and at one point I was EXACTLY where you are now. I had super cheap prices because I was still figuring things out. And that’s a perfectly fine place to be.

      The trick is to constantly raise your prices, even if just gradually every few months. Because the more designs you do, the more experience you get, and thus the more you’re worth.

      If design is something you stick with, I’m confident that you’ll get to a higher price point, because I think you’re on a great track right now and have some nice designs under your belt!

  7. Confession: I would love a custom theme for $50 dollars. Is that a realistic idea to have? No, it isn’t at all.

    I totally understand the labor going into designing, and you take such great care in your development. I know your themes are worth every cent, and while I may not be able to afford it, others can afford it and they truly understand your worth and they are totally willing to pay for your work. And it’s a cycle. You keep creating good work, people notice your good work, they want your work, and it all repeats itself.

    So hey, if I can’t afford your good work, then that challenges me to make something good of my own, because that’s the free and cheap option available to everybody. But honestly, $50 isn’t worth it if it’s a terribly done theme.

    Shannelle C. recently posted: Book Review: Geek Girl by Holly Smale
    1. Thank you, Shannelle! It’s great that you can see and appreciate the work that goes into these things. And I love how you take this as an opportunity to better and improve your own skills. Oddly enough, I think that’s how a lot of designers start out. They see something, they want it, but they can’t afford it, so they try it themselves. Rinse and repeat like 5 million times, and voilà! You’re a designer. 😀

  8. Ooh, such a great post. My husband’s a programmer and this is an issue that often pops up, and I work as a translator. In my line of work it’s the same but the question often posed is: why do you charge so much for a translation when I can just pop my text into Google translate. Uhm have you seen what happens when you do that?
    I don’t know why certain professions are more “respected” than others – no one would demand a plumber or a doctor work for free.

    Kaja recently posted: The Duff by Kody Keplinger
    1. Oh wow, that’s a tough one!

      I think the problem is that so many people just aren’t educated. They can’t spot the difference between a high quality, perfect translation (or design) and something that was pieced together and just had individual words translated.

      There’s a huge difference between the two!!

      And you’re absolutely right on that last point. It’s crazy that people want designers to work for free (or pennies) but don’t expect the same from other professions. You wouldn’t try to haggle the guy who fixes your washing machine, would you? I Just had an engineer come out for that and it never would have crossed my mind to haggle down the £95 price. And on that note, it’s insane that people want to pay less for a design than they would pay for a guy to come fix their washing machine. That £95 is $141 USD!

  9. The old adage “You get what you pay for” comes to mind. $50 for a completely unique design? That’s ridiculous! Why is it web designers and theme designers and coding gods and really smart techie people etc. get a bad rap for being expensive? If it was so easy, then anyone could do it. If you can’t… then you have to pay someone to do it don’t ya? Or you go without.

    People just like to have something to complain about all the time and everyone wants everything for free. I guarantee you if they had to learn everything that they needed to build a design from scratch… they would be charging for their knowledge. It’s a business.

    I have seen some other places out there when I was looking and Creative Whim is super reasonable and from my personal experience so far is worth every single penny. If you had charged me only $50 for what I wanted I wouldn’t have went with you. It would have sounded like a scam.

    People bug me! It’s a pet peeve of mine.

    1. Thanks for posting your thoughts, Carrie!

      In so many other industries, people see super cheap work and immediately think it’s going to be a scam or poor quality. Anna has some awesome examples of this in her post like a car, TV, rent/mortgage, etc. If you see an apartment for $50 per month, you’re going to know it’s a hole in the ground. If you see one for $1500 per month, you’re going to know it’s a nice place.

      It’s sad that this line of thinking doesn’t seem to carry over into the internet world. People just want everything to be awesome quality AND cheap.

      I think maybe part of the problem is that people are used to having free things. WordPress is free, there are tons of free plugins, there are free themes.. And since those things are free, people also want custom things to be free (or super cheap). They don’t appreciate how much work actually goes into it. 🙁

  10. I think that the biggest disconnect is that for a lot of bloggers…blogging is a hobby and most either can’t afford or don’t want to spend a lot of money on a hobby that costs enough time and money as it is. But that logic goes astray because designers/developers like you are NOT hobbyists. This is your livelihood. I would hope to make more that $5 an hour at my place of work and wouldn’t expect someone I hire to work for that little.

    And as someone else said…you get what you pay for.

    Melissa's Eclectic Bookshelf recently posted: Teaser Tuesdays – The Liar by Nora Roberts
    1. Yeah I completely get that. I understand why someone wouldn’t want to (or wouldn’t be able to) pay a lot of money for something that’s ultimately “just” a hobby. If it’s a business, you can afford to pour money into it, but that’s not always the case with hobbies.

      But I think that’s what pre-made themes are for. If you’re unable or not willing to put in a lot of money, pre-made themes are an awesome option. You can buy that, and then maybe hire someone to only create a custom header graphic (less time, less work, less money than a full design).

      Of course it’s not the same as a completely custom theme, but it’s a good, cheap option that will do the job! 🙂

  11. I think you charge a fair price. Like you said building a custom design is a lot of work and you deserve to get some money fro your work.

    I actually thought of thinking a similar post myself about how much effort goes into organizing blog tours, but eventually decided against it as I didn’t know how to word it. I had once an author who thought I should offer my services for free, while every tour costs me hours of time and work. Sure I go for a certain quality and you might pay more for my tours than somewhere else, but that’s the descision I made for my company and how I work.

    I wish people took more time to learn how much time and effort goes into work they know nothing about, before judging that you overcharge them. Great post!

    1. WOW!! I can’t believe an author said that to you. You should have replied saying:

      “I’ll do a free blog tour for you if you put your book on Amazon for free.”


  12. I love this post Ashley! I must confess, I have sometimes blanched at the prices I’ve seen for a full, custom website, but I realise now, especially after being a reader of your blog for so long, that building a full website, from scratch, takes time and that if you pick the right designer, yes you’re paying a lot of money up front, but that could mean you never have to pay for any design work again.

    It’s easy to forget sometimes, I think, how much goes in to building a website.

    In the past I’ve spent a ton of money on WordPress themes, plug-ins, design work etc, when if I’d just gone with someone at the very start I’d have probably paid less money.

    I admire your work so much, and it’s my dream to one day have a custom theme made by you or Anna as you’re both supremely talented and so, so worth the money.

    The Book Geek recently posted: Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen
    1. Haha even I’ve blanched sometimes. 😉 But everyone offers a different kind of value, and that’s usually reflected in the price.

      Anna and I would both love to work with you if/when the time comes. 🙂

  13. Great post, Ashley! I’ve never done web development, but I have worked with other computer programs, and it’s a lot of work. I agree that charging $50 for web design is fine for a web developer that’s just beginning (if I started a web design business, I would probably charge $50 because I’m not experienced), but for other web developers who create custom designs from scratch, $50 is way too little. I think the fact that it is a digital service somehow makes web development and design seem like an easy job for some people, but it really isn’t. If you’ve never worked with code, you can’t understand what it’s like to sit in front of a screen reading 200 lines of code over and over again trying to find where the error is-only to find out that it’s a missing semicolon or indent (in the case of Python. I’m not sure about HTML). Sometimes it can be really frustrating. You definitely deserve more than just $50.

    Ana @ Butterflies of the Imagination recently posted: Poetry and Novels, and How They Mix
    1. I think a lot of the confusion also comes with all the platforms (like WordPress) that are open source/free. People see thousands of free themes and plugins that are just one click/download away. So when you hire someone to do a custom theme (which, to them, is the same thing, just with a different design) they’re confused as to why it costs so much. If there are free themes out there, why are people charging hundreds/thousands of dollars for a custom one?

      And that’s definitely a tough thing for people to get around. It comes down to having to educate people, which can also be tough.

  14. Is because there are offers so cheap that people criticized the real designers that offer the real price. My blog is my hobby but also a important part of my life, some people loves to do this and that and I love blogging and learn more about it and share my thoughts and meet people. For me a 900usd investment in my blog, will seem crazy to some people and I know if they knew I plan to have a custom design at this this price, they would call me crazy, but for me is not crazy is a long term investment. Even paying for a host is crazy for the bloggers I know but for me it is the best thing I ever made, in my blogging life!
    I compare this to: if I’m building a house I will need an architect (Ashley) and an interior designer (Anna) because Anna will know how to put things to work with the structure and Ashley will build the structure and make sure the structure is secure and holds everything. I don’t wanna pay 50usd to have chairs in the stairs or have a house with two levels and no stairs to reach the second level…if people want beauty and function they have to pay for it, having really nice chairs and a function structure is expensive but worthy and hiring someone to steal chairs or find it for free somewhere or in the garbage or have to clim the wall to get to the second floor… is what I get for such a cheap price!

    1. I love you analogy, Vera! That’s such a great way to put it.

      And I totally agree with you about investing in your blog. Although there is a fine line between what part of my blog is a hobby and what part is a business, it all feels like a hobby to me. Even before I launched my business, I poured hundreds of dollars into my blog. I bought plugins (that I didn’t know how to code myself at the time), I spent hundreds of dollars on good quality hosting (you also get what you pay for there!), and I spent money on stock imagery.

      Even though blogging was just a hobby for me at the time, it meant a lot to me. I’m quite happy to pour money into doing something I love, even if it doesn’t make me any money.

      1. i feel the same way i don’t mind of spending money on something that makes me happy. People buy clothes, new technology, they travel etc…and they spent money in something they love and enjoy and is the same for me in blogging…i love my blog, i love to improve it and make it so functional, pretty and easy that i love to make posts on it and i’m proud of show it 😀 my blog is a life project, a hobby that i hope will always stays with me 🙂

        Vera recently posted: Review: Damaged by Cathy Glass
  15. Let’s be honest, most developers have a base theme that they tweak and add some code on top of that, is not like they write the same code over and over again, it has no sense, that said, I agree that they should charge like any other professional.

    1. Yes, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take 5 hours just for the coding part (never mind the actual design as well). Even if you have a base template you’re working off of, you usually have to redo most of the CSS and at least some of the HTML/structure part.

      That just means it takes 5 hours instead of 10 hours just for the coding bit, which is an improvement, but still a lot of work. And once you factor in the design, it’s back to being a 10-15 (or more) hour job.

  16. I agree 100%. The saying (and I don’t know who said it) that comes to mind:
    “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur.”

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