Hey, You Dropped a Quarter
I’m a sucker for a good bassline, so “For the Love of Money” by The O’Jays has been in heavy rotation on my “before my time” playlist for most of this year. Go, please, play it now. Bop around. You have time.
Also in heavy rotation? All these conflicting themes of financial freedom and responsibility that accompany self-employment and don’t sink in until you’re living them. If you missed my Instagram story about how trying to create a tiered fee structure for a project proposal drove me to a philosophical meltdown about money and self-worth, we’ll catch up about that another time.
More pressing, as I try to transfer to a new invoicing software and “project my 2019 earnings” and avoid that article about how millennials aren’t spending because they have no dough, I’m thinking about all the ways I’ve seen myself leave money on the table in my first 8 months of business, and what to do about it next.
My relationship to money can mostly be summed up in one tragic anecdote. My junior year in college, I found an enormous hunk of cash on the ground outside the administrative building, and I left it there. It was at least $50.00 in several--many--bills (I don’t know because I was too afraid to touch it and count), and I went through a rapid moral crisis: “Finders keepers!” to a pearl-clutching “Somebody NEEDS that, they’re probably coming right back for it,” which gave way to the shifty yet thrilling, “Okay, I should take it, but what if somebody else sees and knows it’s not mine?” I even went so far as to dither about whether I could take it, post a lost and found note somewhere, and--what? Give it to the first enterprising person who showed up to claim their money, wink wink nudge nudge? It. Wasn’t. Mine.
So I walked away, and for the last 8 years I’ve been plagued by the thought that the next person to cross that sidewalk after me probably bought a lot of PBR with their sudden windfall of cash.
Money has always been something I don’t want to think about and am uncomfortable asking for or claiming by any means. When I decided to work for myself, I knew this could end up being a sink or swim kind of problem, especially since most of my clients are not behemoth brands with abundant creative budgets. Thanks to months of research and a mentor who looked me in the eye when I quoted her a rate and said, “No. More than that. You have to pay taxes!” I’m steadily growing more confident when it comes to pricing my work and making sure I get paid, and it’s working.
But when you freelance, little trickles of change can fall from your pockets in the quietest, sneakiest ways. Recognize any of these?
You’re leaving money on the table because:
You’re not charging enough.
This is somewhat obvious, but it’s the trickiest one to navigate. Do you want to see my search history and count how many times I’ve googled variations on “freelance writing rates”? I wouldn’t.
I had ludicrously low expectations about what I could or should charge in this field because I’ve never had a conversation about salary or the wherewithal to calculate what my work/time/experience/intellect is “worth” in a job. The concept of negotiation both blows my mind and makes the bile rise because I spent most of my working life thinking, “This is what they said they could pay me, so this is what I deserve to make.” (Grim.)
Don’t--DO NOT--set your rates based on the fantasy that if you bid real, real low, someone will go “OH GOODY!” and hire you right up. Because they will! But did you calculate whether that job will cover your bills? How much time will you spend on this? Is that time you could spend on a higher-paying project, or some self-care, or marketing yourself, all of which have an arguably bigger payoff in the long run? If lots and lots of cheapo projects keep landing on your roster and your income doesn’t grow along with your responsibilities, it really starts to hurt.
Furthermore, clients who look at price first, value second, often present other challenges that can make your work together more difficult than it needs to be. (Though not always! This is why you need to learn to have candid conversations about budgets--it’s not as scary as it sounds.)
I am very in favor of offering a lower rate if you really want to work with someone and you can afford to make a little less on a great project or need something to build up your portfolio. I’m not in a position to discount (heh) why that’s important. But you should know why you’re doing it, and what the tradeoffs might be in your situation. Even if your overhead is low, *expenses happen*--health insurance will keep getting more expensive, rent is just literally always due somehow, and you will get invited to four weddings in five months.
Also, friend, you gotta pay taxes.
You don’t invoice on time.
Invoicing! Oh my god, for something with such a delightful result that helps keep me alive, boy do I HATE it! I even use a great software that calculates everything for me, reminds me when it’s time to send my invoices and when they’re due, and keeps track of how much I’ve made each month. And yet.
When money doesn’t automatically show up in your bank account thanks to the wonders of direct deposit like it used to when you were salaried, you have to ask for it. Whether you bill hourly, by the project, on a retainer, whatever, you’re responsible for initiating this exchange.
Here are some of the reasons I’ve failed to invoice on time this year:
I didn’t track my hours in one place and had to scour my notebooks for all my hand-kept records, then calculate my rate (the software can do this for you).
I didn’t feel like the project was “done” because the client hadn’t uploaded it yet, even though it was submitted and approved.
I had a bad feeling that the client wouldn’t pay (well, not with that attitude).
The timing was weird. Should I send my invoice on a Wednesday? Every other Friday? On the 21st, always? Do I ask people to pay in 15 days, or 30?
It was boring. Invoicing IS boring. It is a tedious, fiddly process that reminds you that even though you have your own business, you still rely on others to pay you for your services at some arbitrary value and then you’re just a few seconds away from getting swept into a wormhole of existential angst, a place in which I happen to be very comfortable, thank you very much.
But you know what? Getting invoices paid is a delicious, tingly feeling and for much more tangible reasons, it’s worth it. When you don’t invoice on time, you don’t look serious about what you do, and it’s super easy to lose track of what you’re supposed to earn each month. Worst case scenario, you don’t send it at all, but I’m going to assume/hope that this is highly unlikely.
If you struggle with the motivation to do administrative chores like this, you might try one or all of these cues (inspired by my wonderful business coach, Jenny):
Schedule Invoice Day. Maybe it IS every other Friday. Depending on your workload and your bills and how reliable your clients are, you may not need to invoice twice a month or once a week, but pick a day that’s usually free, and stick to it. Then block out the time to create and send your invoices and you won’t have to think about it until...the next time.
Set up the invoice when you create the contract, then fill in the details later. This changed the game for me. Creating contracts and proposals makes invoicing look like a picnic, if you ask me, but preparing them all at the same time is both efficient and super satisfying.
Bribery? I’m not above bribery. If you need a fancy coffee or a longer-than-usual nap or a coat of get-shit-done lipstick to spur you to finish chores you dislike, just do it. Who’s going to stop you?