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Retainer vs. General Contract: Understanding the Difference for Freelance Work

Retainer vs. General Contract: Understanding the Difference for Freelance Work

As a freelancer, it’s crucial to establish clear terms and agreements when entering into client relationships. Two common arrangements you may encounter are working under a retainer or a general contract. While both serve as legal agreements, they differ in their structure, purpose, and benefits. In this blog post, we’ll explore the difference between a retainer and a general contract in the context of freelance work, helping you make informed decisions for your business.

1. Understanding Retainers

A retainer is a prearranged agreement between a freelancer and a client where the freelancer is paid a fixed fee upfront to reserve their availability for a specified period. It ensures a freelancer’s services are readily accessible to the client whenever needed, allowing for a more seamless workflow. Retainers are commonly used when clients require ongoing support or anticipate regular workloads.

Key characteristics of a retainer include:

  • Regular Payments: Freelancers receive a predetermined payment periodically, regardless of the amount of work completed during that period.
  • Exclusive Availability: The freelancer is typically obligated to prioritize the client’s work and is available during agreed-upon hours.
  • Flexibility: The retainer agreement often allows for adjustments in the scope of work, allowing the client to allocate resources as required.

2. Exploring General Contracts

A general contract, also known as a project-based contract, is a written agreement outlining the terms and conditions for a specific freelance project. It specifies the deliverables, timeline, compensation, and other essential details related to the project. General contracts are typically used for one-time or short-term projects that have a defined scope.

Key characteristics of a general contract include:

  • Defined Scope and Timeline: The contract outlines the specific project, its requirements, and the expected deliverables, along with a mutually agreed-upon timeline.
  • Payment Structure: Freelancers are compensated based on milestones, completion of specific tasks, or a predetermined fee upon project completion.
  • Limited Timeframe: The contract remains in effect until the project is completed, after which the freelancer’s obligation ends unless a new agreement is made.

3. Benefits of Retainers

  • Financial Stability: Retainers provide freelancers with a predictable income stream, offering financial stability even during periods with varying workloads.
  • Client Relationship: Retainers foster stronger relationships with clients as freelancers become trusted advisors, intimately understanding the client’s needs, goals, and industry.
  • Time Management: Retainers allow freelancers to plan their schedule effectively, knowing that they have committed hours and resources dedicated to the retainer client.

4. Benefits of General Contracts

  • Clear Scope and Deliverables: General contracts outline the project’s specifics, minimizing the potential for misunderstandings and scope creep.
  • Flexibility and Variety: Freelancers working on project-based contracts can work with multiple clients simultaneously, offering greater diversity in their portfolio.
  • Negotiation Potential: General contracts allow freelancers to negotiate project terms, fees, and deliverables, ensuring fair compensation for their work.


In the freelance world, both retainers and general contracts serve important purposes. Retainers provide stability and closer client relationships, while general contracts offer flexibility and negotiation opportunities. Understanding the difference between the two will help you choose the most appropriate arrangement based on your business needs, project requirements, and long-term goals. By setting clear expectations through either a retainer or a general contract, you can establish a solid foundation for successful freelance engagements.