The following is a guest post by Colleen Kong Savage, an illustrator and designer transitioning from SAHM for over a decade to trying to make it on her own as a freelancer.
Why does asking for money make so many of us squirm? I’m not horrible at it—anymore—just not good. Money is the elephant in the room standing next to the cash cow. Some folks have no fear giving that pachyderm a happy slap on the rump, but others like me look the other way until we are forced to acknowledge it.
I started pursuing my freelance graphic arts business in earnest two years ago. However I have only one year experience asking for money because I had to spend my first year just asking for work. My preferred method of waiting for work to come to me had failed, so instead I sent job applications into a black hole—first as a midlevel graphic designer, then an entry level designer, and finally offering free labor as a 40-year-old intern, trying to get my foot in the door—to no avail. I advertised my illustration skills on job sites.
After months of watching funds dwindling alongside my self-esteem, a potential client emerged from the murk of Craigslist and asked me to do an illustration for his business presentation.
“How much?” he asked.
“What do you need?” I countered. (In retrospect I should have asked what his budget was, just so I could have a starting point for negotiations. However it probably would have been a moot point since most clients avoid my budget question.)
As with many clients, he needed the image yesterday and all of heaven and earth illustrated in detail on a letter-size page. I optimistically calculated ten hours of skilled labor on my part, plus took into account that this was Craigslist, the garage sale for services, plus this was a rush job. This was the first inquiry I’d received after posting on Craigslist for months and I was desperate for work.
“Does $400 work for you?” I held my breath.
“I can do that,” he said.
After all was said and done, my pay rate was probably a ridiculous $11/hour because there were additions and changes, long-winded phone conversations, a trip downtown to collect a check, and a whole checklist of nuisances I had failed to consider. However, I have looked at this past year as if I were my own intern, working for pennies, but learning, learning, learning.
Creatives are reputed to have poor business acumen—although I imagine if folks from other occupations were also forced to fend for themselves without the umbrella of an employer, we would probably discover a similar percentage of poor business people in the general population.
Of all the different aspects of freelancing, the thing I hate most is talking financial details. Sooner or later, most of us have to ask for money: you quote your rate to a client, you bid on a job, you need a raise, you need a loan, you want a better price for that car. Why is it so difficult for some of us to ask for it?
Related: How To Be A Rockstar Freelancer
SIX REASONS WHY IT’S HARD TO TALK CASH
1. Shhhhh – Money Is Taboo
First of all, we try not to talk about it too much. At least in this society. You know the saying, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” In some countries you bargain everyday with the vendors at the market for the food in your basket. Can you imagine Americans bargaining with the cashier every time we checked out of Safeway?
Some of us don’t even know that in certain situations we can ask for a lower price (cable services, gym memberships, settling an outstanding bill, etcetera). Money is a taboo subject because like many other taboo subjects, it is often a source of insecurity. Sometimes our ego is tied to our pay, or maybe we are afraid of being seen as cheap, or maybe we don’t want to be looked down on as a trust fund baby. Imagine being on a first date, and the other person asks what you earn annually. The question is more déclassé than if you were asked your age and weight.
How many of us really know how much the guy in the cubicle next to ours makes? Over the water cooler the two of you commiserate over your miserable salaries. Then one day, you catch sight of his pay stub and realize his pay rate is 15% higher than yours, though you began at the company on the same day and share the same title and responsibilities.
Growing up, my mother used to chide my brother for talking money. He would ask, “What does it cost? How much did you pay?” Big no-no. Too crass. But he could never help himself. He loved the negotiations of currency, selling his Armani jeans and his Gameboy, buying a motorbike, then selling the motorbike when our mom found out. As an adult he’s a financial success through the art of money. But the rest of us, who buy into the idea that talking money is in poor taste, struggle with speaking up for what we want.
2. Do You Believe?
Where do you begin when you calculate how much money to ask for? You have to believe—not just know, but believe that you can and ought to be paid a certain amount.
You know that essay that Jennifer Lawrence wrote when she discovered through Sony’s hacked emails, that she and Amy Adams were being paid 7% profits from American Hustle versus the 9% that all their male co-stars were being paid? Gender pay gap aside (because that’s a whole post unto itself), negotiating without knowledge of what her counterparts were being paid, Lawrence was afraid of pushing her luck by demanding higher pay. She was afraid of being seen as “difficult” or “spoiled.” Upon learning how much more the men were paid, she said, “I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early.” In response to the revealed disparity in pay, Bradley Cooper pledged transparency about his own compensation from here on out to help co-stars in their negotiations.
If people in your social circle scrape by on $25K/year on average, then your $28K is well within the norm of your world. You know there are plenty of folks in the universe pulling in six-figures, but you are satisfied with your salary because you’re actually doing a bit better than most of the people you know. However, if everyone else in your circle averages $60K, $28K suddenly feels excruciatingly low. You feel pressure to catch up with your peers, and $60K is not only possible, it’s the standard.
I have my trusty Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines put out by the Graphic Artist’s Guild, which states that the median pay for a graphic designer is $65/hour (I also looked for the median for illustrators, but they tend to be paid by job versus hour). When I first saw that figure, it felt mighty unrealistic.
Working at an art store for $12/hour with a bunch of fellow illustrators and painters, I did not personally know any artist that made that kind of money. Most of my peers and I would have been thrilled to make even a third of that figure from doing creative work. So when I was in my “passive freelancing” mode (i.e. before I was divorced and had to learn to make a living), I was only comfortable charging about $20-25/hour. I could not imagine people paying any more than that.
Fast forward ten years to today: in learning to support myself, I know I cannot raise a kid in New York City at $20/hour. Initially, I also did not think it was possible to survive on an artist’s earning. To be sure, the creative field is supremely crowded, and during the first year it felt impossible to break into it. However, through the years I have met and been mentored by illustrators and designers who actually do earn a living wage doing what they love. They are my role models. I pick their brains, and so today my standards are different.
I quote potential clients double my initial rates. Many balk (as I said earlier Craigslist is a garage sale of services) and cannot or will not pay that amount, in which case I have to pass on their jobs because 1) I cannot afford to work for a lower amount, and 2) I now know from experience there are clients out there able and willing to pay the amount I ask. I still charge below the handbook’s listed market rate as I build my clientele base, but I can now see that $65/hour figure in my future.
3. Hey, Is That Mine?
Which brings me to the next factor which determines how comfortable one feels in asking for money: a sense of entitlement. A sense of entitlement gives you the mental power to ask for money. Are you doing the job of two people? Have you gotten that annual raise to match the rising cost of living? And as we know, there is this gender pay gap thing.
What gives me the sense of entitlement to stick to my fee? 1) As I said before, because I am still building a clientele, my fee is well-below the market price. 2) I know how many hours I will put into that job, which will start off as several concepts before being culled down to one, which I will further develop and refine, not to mention the time conversing with the client, making requested changes, talking with vendors, etcetera. In other words, I know for a fact that for all the wincing on the other end of the line, I am offering that person a great deal.
4. Am I Good Enough? Smart Enough? Doggone It, Do People Even Like Me?
Self-esteem is a deluxe version of entitlement. When I began taking my graphic arts seriously as a business, I felt wishy washy when quoting fees to clients. I was so new to the market that my fees felt like high numbers, even though they are actually on the low end. I felt inexperienced and I didn’t know if I could do the job.
What a difference a year makes. While I still worry at the beginning of every gig (Will this be the creative project that stumps me? Do I have the necessary computer knowledge pull it off?), I have found that I usually do a damn fine job as a graphic artist. And not just with the final product, but all through the process.
I communicate well with my clients, helping them flesh out concepts, educating them, keep THEM on the schedule they set. Most of my clientele are extraordinarily pleased with my work and recommend me to others. And maaaaan… their high levels of satisfaction are gratifying after the experience of my previous year, when I couldn’t get hired to save my life, even when trying to whore off my skills for free. Knowing that I do quality work entitles me to ask for the money I ask. I can’t wait for the day I feel entitled to ask for more.
5. How Much Emotional Investment Are You Carrying Around In that Basket?
My friend Julianne Mason is a songwriter and musician. She said, “It wasn’t until I didn’t want to act anymore that people started to pay me for acting.” Sound familiar?
There is something liberating about not giving a flying flip whether or not you get that work. Asking for things is easier when they are not vital to your existence. When I worked at the art store, I was perfectly comfortable asking for a raise, knowing it didn’t matter whether or not my employer would grant it because my spouse at the time was supporting me. My employer usually grumbled that he could not afford to pay me more, and I had no issue asking again and again.
When I am approached by a potential client, my discomfort in talking money correlates with how much I care about her project. For example, I’m usually no longer that keen on logo design jobs (I prefer illustration), thus I have no problems demanding my fee, which I used to worry was too high for anyone to hire me. That bit of reluctance to do a job helps me hold my ground when I am negotiating my price. And because I’ve shifted my professional focus, I don’t mind when the low-paying design jobs move past me. Furthermore, clients who do hire me often tell me that the higher fee is well worth the quality of my service. I love this freedom from worry.
Conversely, when we are emotionally involved, the act of asking is fraught with anxiety. If we our request is denied, is that a personal rejection? An indication of the quality of our work? Are we not valued? Emerging artists do much better when they have a good agent—not just because they are able to sell more work, but because they no longer have to deal with numerous rejections of what are often very personal creations.
6. Please Don’t Go
All this leads me to the most concrete fear I have in talking money. Will I scare off a potential client if he thinks I am asking for too much? Will he walk away and I lose the opportunity to work? Or will he see my value and either agree to or stay to negotiate the terms? Will I lose my good standing with an already existing client?
I work at a fraction of the fees charged by established artists, but there are still hordes of artists who will do the work I do at a fraction of my own rates. I am competing with students, with crowd-sourcing, with artists in different countries where the cost of living is lower, with artists simply desperate enough to undercut their work’s value. Competition is fierce in creative fields, which is why people are able to get away with requests that artists to do work for free—or for “exposure.” Notice that nobody asks a plumber to unclog the toilet as a portfolio piece.
Negotiation is a skill that can only be learned by doing—a little like sparring, where getting on the mat is the only way to learn how to think on your feet. You are learning how to observe the other person before you can counter and have a dialogue. As I build my business, I am learning timing, what to communicate, and what to ask in order to find a middle ground that is satisfactory to both my client and me.
KNOW YOUR WORTH
Illustrator Will Terry suggests throwing out the Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines when it comes to pricing our work because everyone is at a different stage of their career. Instead, he suggests calculating our rock bottom price. How much do we want this job? Maybe the project is interesting to us, or we know that if we land this first job it will bring us more work, or maybe this client is a nightmare to work for. Know our lowest number. At what figure would we walk away without regret when the client says he will only pay so much? And then double that figure because, as my musician friend Gary Kiyan so eloquently says, “You don’t want to come to the negotiation table with your pants around your ankles.”
In conclusion, practice is the best way to get comfortable asking people to take cash out of their pockets to put into your pocket. Growth is not a straight line—for every time I talk money successfully, I also have an embarrassing failure—but overall asking does get easier the more often I do it. I am figuring out the logistics of a freelance business, initially throwing darts in the dark. Now I have some dim bar lighting going on and can make out the dart board. My aim may never be ideal in the art of negotiation, but I hope that one day, I will no longer feel anxiety from the simple act of demanding the financial worth of my labor.
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Updated for 2019 and beyond.