click here to jump to start of article
  • Torah Reading: Naso
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

Quote Unquote

Quote Unquote

The job took three times as long as expected. Can I suddenly double the price?


We've all encountered the following situation and every time it stings anew. I call it the "Quote Unquote Phenomenon." It goes something like this:

Him: (Toothy grin) "Hello, Mrs. Pomerantz! I'm Dan the Man and I'll be happy to fix your toilet if you'll just lead the way to the bathroom..."

Me: (Wary grin back) "Uh, sure, Mr. Man, if you'll, uh, just give me a quote on how much it'll take to snake out the half-package of diapers my baby stuffed down there..."

Him: (Bigger grin) "No problem. Glad you asked. It'll be $150, even, plus tax. Okay?"

Me: (Waning grin): "Uh, okay. This way, please."

So Dan the Man does his thing, amid plenty of grunting and growling, and as he emerges he flashes me a weary smile and wipes his brow.

"Mrs. Pomerantz," he says with a sad wink, "Y'know, I gotta tell you. It was a lot more work than I thought. I mean, your toilet is really narrow at the base, and those diapers were wedged in pretty tight." Pause. "I'm gonna need to charge you an extra 50 bucks for that. It'll be $200, even, plus tax."

And that, my friends, is the "Quote Unquote." You get a quote and then it gets unquoted in a sort of one-upmanship that isn't really very sportsmanlike. Being a veteran of many such encounters, I was shocked one day to find myself shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Dan the Man and his ilk, poised uncertainly at the edge of a perilous moral precipice.

The job seemed like a piece of cake. Birthday cake, actually. As a birthday gift, a client wanted to commission me to write up the story of her friendship with the birthday girl. No problem. I thought for a few minutes, made a quick calculation, and gave her a price which we both agreed was fair.

Could I really spin the same Dan the Man technique on my hapless client?

Well sometimes cakes flop, and this one turned out to be a royal disaster. The job took three times as long as expected, with revisions, glitches, and two all-nighters to finish it off. When it came time for payment, I wearily contemplated my dilemma. I'd quoted her a ridiculously low price, based on an incomplete picture of what was truly required. I'd delivered a much higher quality product than she'd expected and deserved to be paid double. I took a deep breath. It wasn't pleasant, but I knew what needed to be done. I'd just have to tell her that the quote had been underestimated. Sorry about that. These things happen.


"Quote Unquote" buzzers rang in my mind; images of Dan the Man coaxing out the last of the soggy diapers flashed before my eyes. Could I really spin the same technique on my hapless client? She'd gone ahead with the project thinking it would cost her one hundred and fifty dollars. Could I suddenly double the price?

My head was full of opinions, clamoring to be heard.

You worked hard; don't sell yourself short!
You stayed up till 3:30 in the morning doing that piece -- don't tell me you're gonna give in on this!
She can afford it!
If you'd done it for anyone else you would have been paid what you're worth!
You gave her much more than she bargained for!

In all the cacophony, it was easy to miss that tiny, faint cry from the very back of my thoughts. In fact, it didn't seem to be coming from my mind at all; it was emanating from my heart.

It's not right, urged this gentle voice. You wouldn't want anyone doing that to you!

Hillel, one of our greatest Sages, was approached by a gentile with an odd and audacious request. "Teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot," he demanded. Hillel was unfazed. He complied immediately. "Whatever you dislike, do not do to your friend," he told the man. "This is the entire Torah."

It's so simple. Not easy, but simple. Whatever you dislike, don't do to your friends. That was exactly the answer to my inner dilemma. Visions of Dan the Man surged inside me. There was that flush of resentment as he upped the price, that cynical glance I tossed him as he smugly wrote out a receipt. Did I like it? Not a bit! Could I then do it to a friend?

I waved goodbye to Dan and quickly told my client that I'd stick to my original quote. No song-and-dance about the amount of time and effort the piece had taken me -- that would just be a passive-aggressive masquerade for asking for more money.

Profit can sometimes be measured in morals and sense.

A call to my rabbi not only confirmed my suspicions but also showed me how I'd been treading on thin ice in the Torah department. In most cases, the rabbi told me, Jewish law* actually prohibits practices like those of our friend Dan the Plumber. A quote given is binding and cannot be changed after the job is completed even if the quote-giver failed to take into consideration certain aspects of the project. In order to protect oneself, a contractor can give a client an hourly rate, or in my case, a per-word rate, to avoid under-quoting, but once a figure is given there's no backsies!

After my client dropped off payment, I thought for a long time.

It is easy to measure profit in dollars and cents. But there is a growing awareness in my mind that profit can sometimes be measured in morals and sense. Especially in our turbulent economic times, money and its importance has been cast in an entirely different light and many of our beliefs around finances and worth are being challenged. Today, I came face-to-face with this conundrum. I raked in considerably less financial profit than I'd hoped for, even as I pocketed a king's ransom in spiritual gain.

And there's definitely a bright side that glitters much more than gold. I mean, how often do I get a chance to keep the entire Torah while standing on one foot?

*(See Pischei Choshen, Sechirus, Chapter 8, note 2 and note 40)


April 25, 2009

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 15

(15) Pessy, October 18, 2010 10:33 PM

Great, well written, inspiring article.

I admire your writing talent and your way of conveying the eternal message. Yasher Koach!

(14) Anonymous, May 11, 2009 5:46 AM

Quoting Hillel

The second part of Hillel's answer is often forgotten yet it is as essential as the first. After the famous 1rst sentence, Hillel then said "Now go and learn".

(13) Beverly Kurtin, April 29, 2009 7:13 PM

Leviticus 19:18

A few years ago our sewer pipe had to be replaced. We had been given a “written in stone” price. After the work was completed, the plumber lied his head off and told us that he needed an extra $1,000. Rather than comply (because he had made up a story about how much the city license had cost, etc.) I just picked up the phone and let him hear my attorney’s office answer the phone. I told the receptionist that I would have to call back. I then asked the plumber if he still wanted his $1,000, that I would be happy to write a check, but did he really want it now. He didn’t. Had he taken the check, I’d have had my attorney eat his lunch as what he did in my state was unlawful. I live in Texas where an oral contract is as valid as a written contract. The plumber, instead of giving a flat fee should have given an hourly price. Raising the price was unethical and possibly unlawful. I’m retired now, but I ran my business using Lev. 19:18 as my guide. It was nice to say the evening Shema and go to sleep with a clear conscious.

(12) E. M. Lefrak, April 28, 2009 11:13 PM

beautiful. yasher koach.

absolutely beautiful. And there are other lessons, too - emes, kiddush HaShem . . . And bH, your writing is itself beautiful! Thank you!

(11) Anonymous, April 28, 2009 11:26 AM

How do the professionals do it?

I work in the construction industry, and we can learn something from good managers on this topic. When working out a quote, be sure to agree (preferably in writing) to a scope of work, with enough detail to go back later and say "well, we agreed to this scope, but then the project grew to this new scope" and then reapproach the price. It may not be any one person's fault that the project grew, but if you agree to one revision and your client ends up wanting three, you should be paid for your time. If you put in the time and money to build a skill, you should be paid for the value of your services.

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment