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How Hard Is It To Get Paid?
On making money from your work — and... not.
As a self-employed writer and podcaster, I often have a tough time making money from my work. But… maybe not in the way you’d think.
Whether it’s a consulting gig, website build, or ghostwriting job, I love pitching projects, and I’m fine drawing up proposals. But when the conversation turns to payment, I get REALLY, REALLY UNCOMFORTABLE. And maybe you do, too.
I feel embarrassed, squeamish, and even guilty establishing my per-word or per-project or per-hour rate. Even though I follow average industry rates, I still feel like I’m tainting the project, cheating, or getting away with something.
It feels, for lack of a better term, icky.
But why? I know that, on a fundamental level, we deserve to be compensated for our time, ideas, and labor. I know that it’s a fair exchange.
In fact, it’s more than a fair exchange, because years ago, in order to help assuage the icky feeling, I established a special “Friends & Family Rate” that is 60% below the standard. And… I felt so guilty about charging what felt like exorbitant amounts of money for my work that I extended that rate to pretty much everyone I ever worked with.
“I just have a lot of friends and family,” I told myself. “And that’s a good thing!”
I think part of the issue was that a lot of individuals and small businesses simply don’t know how much things cost these days. A local artist asked me for a website quote and when I gave him the number, his eyeballs just about exploded out of his head.
I think he had expected to just throw a $20 my way — though realistically, that wouldn’t have even covered a couple months of website hosting, let alone the cost of designing and building the actual website.
“But! I have a special Friends & Family Rate!” I hastened to add as that familiar swirl of dread and panic twisted my stomach. He balked at that rate, too, even though it was at a 60% discount, but I remained firm on that, at least. I had to, if I was going to actively not lose money on the project. If I wasn’t essentially going to pay him for the privilege of building him a website.
And here’s the kicker: even at a 60% discount, I still felt like I was taking advantage of him. It felt awful. Shameful, even.
Maybe I’m too much of a people-pleaser. Maybe I’m a pushover. Maybe I’m naive. Maybe I have a low sense of self-worth. Maybe I don’t see value in the work I do. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to run a business. Maybe I should run a charity instead. Maybe I’ve internalized the concept of money as a low or worldly or impolite thing. Maybe I’m a snob. Maybe I’m too proud to admit that I need money to live. Maybe I have trouble asking for things in general. Maybe asking to be paid feels like begging. Maybe asking to be paid means I don’t actually love what I do. Maybe I equate payment as compensation for misery. Maybe I’m afraid of confrontation. Maybe it’s self-loathing.
Maybe it’s all of the above.
I mean, I know better. Rationally, I know that I can’t exist on rainbows and smiles. I know that I do excellent work, and that I deserve to be paid for it.
I know that it’s easy to undervalue what we do — things that feel fun and/or easy for us should be fun and/or easy for everyone, right? But… that’s not the case.
I know that in writing this week’s letter to you, I am admitting an enormous weakness — an embarrassing one at that. “Oh my gosh, Sarah, just get paid for your work!” you might be saying at this point. “It’s not that hard!”
But deep down, somewhere in the clutches of my heart, there’s a little gremlin digging in its claws and arguing otherwise. “GREEDY!” it shrieks. “CHEATER! THIEF! You’re PART OF THE PROBLEM!”
And it’s not even a self-employed thing — I’ve always had trouble talking about money. And maybe you have, too. It’s fairly common to go in to your annual review at work and dread asking for a raise, if you even have the guts to do it.
(Fun story: I actually took huge pay cuts for each new job I took in my career since I was desperate and didn’t know how to negotiate, and convinced myself that being less miserable at work was worth the loss in income. My first full-time job started me at $42k, my second at $35k, and my third at $28k. Don’t be like me.)
Things are better now — there are whole movements dedicated to getting paid what you’re worth, and the old “Don’t discuss pay with your coworkers” adage has been debunked (and is, FYI, illegal). Unions are doing incredible work. Hopefully, a new generation of young people (omg I’m so old) will experience life above the poverty line.
Personally, I’m doing okay. I’ve moved into an arena of my career where I have an agent who negotiates project payment for me… which is maybe a cop-out, but I’m grateful. And I can buy myself a nice latte every once in a while.
I’m sharing all of this with you today because I think it’s important to have transparent conversations about money, especially as creatives. If anything in today’s letter resonated with you, I’d encourage you to think about why.
If it still feels icky, then take a deep breath and search along the root of that feeling. There may even be more than one cause — people-pleasing, low self-worth, fear of confrontation, religious shame, etc. It could even be that someone (e.g., a client, employer, even a friend) is actively making you feel guilty about it.
Regardless, take the time to explore what is really going on.
Because your work has value.
Money is not inherently good or evil — it’s a tool that, as you may have heard, can be exchanged for goods and services. And even shared with others. Being poor is not, as I somehow managed to internalize over the years, a virtue. Suffering is not a cure.
I encourage you to look up standard pay scales and take comfort in the thought that, “If other people are getting paid [amount] for this work, why can’t I?”
So take a deep breath, gather your courage, and ask for a raise. Ask people to support you on Patreon. Send out that invoice. Stop giving away that 60% “Friends & Family” discount.
Because — and please believe me — you’re worth it.
Words & warmth,
New Write Now Podcast Episode!
“When Your Writing Dreams Change” — WN 156
What happens when your childhood dream feels like it's no longer achievable? What does it mean if (and when) your 5-year plan goes off the rails?
In this episode, we're talking about what happens when our writing dreams change — and what it means for us as creators.
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