I called my stepmom from the grad school library. I spoke in
hushed tones so I wasn’t that person who felt the need to broadcast
their conversation, but also because we were talking money.
I wanted to apply for a position but the salary was LOW. It was a nonprofit, so I wasn’t surprised the salary was low, but the bleeding heart in me was doubting whether I needed more if I was doing what I loved.
My stepmom warned me: What you accept will set the bar for years to come. Don’t start too low.
I was low balled with my offer — lower than what I had been paid out of undergrad and that was without two grad degrees and three internships and a teaching position.
The offer was so low I told the HR contact that I’d really have to think about. She asked my reasoning and I told her: “I really want this job but it’s the lowest possible in the band. I come in with the higher level experience and education.”
So she asked what I was looking for. I asked for $7000 more. It wasn’t what I wanted — that was $15k more — but at least I could afford an apartment in the city.
They called back and revised my offer, moving it up $7k.
“How easy,” I thought. “Damn, I should have asked for more.”
That would be the first of many times that thought crossed my mind.
I’m Kim Wensel and this is Resentfully Yours, a limited series podcast where we examine, adjust, and reframe the expectations of a creative career.
The topics on this show explore how to avoid resentment when you’re feeling misunderstood, overworked, and undervalued. Because as a working creative the question isn’t IF you’ll feel this way, it’s WHEN.
This series focuses on how to get back to work that’s life giving, not life sucking; making your own definition of “making it;” and ditching the excuses that are keeping us from reaching our true potential.
SIGNS OF BURNOUT
Resentment can come from a lot of things. But when we’re talking work, you better believe the number one indicator someone is resentful of what they have to do is when they say: “I don’t get paid enough for this.”
“That’s above my paygrade.”
“Mo money, mo problems.”
The narrative tells us that the more money you make, the more miserable your life will be.
When you work for yourself you feel the residual effects of this. Good work, valuable work is hard work. If it’s easy for us, we automatically devalue it. We make these things more complex to make them “worth it” for the person paying us….even when no one has asked for it to be this way.
My best way of working is deep and fast and my intensive working sessions reflect that. I’d prefer to dedicate myself fully to a project for a week than let it draw out for 9 months. That’s not the “right” way, just my preference.
In my intensive sessions I’ve fallen into the trap of proving how much I could deliver. I remember once instance where I was on calls with a client for 4 or 5 hours and then stepped away in the other 4 to condense everything we’d discussed and write original copy for her.
Other times, when helping someone define their bio and, for lack of a better term, elevator pitch, I’d deliver a 50-page slide deck. It was always a bit of a letdown for me to see my clients’ eyes glaze over appearing completely overwhelmed upon delivery.
This isn’t a rarity.
I’ve had many a conversation with people who want to raise their prices but hesitate when we put a structure together because it feels too easy. There’s not enough they’re delivering.
Maybe this is a Western mindset, maybe it’s capitalism, maybe it’s the ad world. We’ve become accustomed to tying worth to amount of stuff.
The first question I get asked from someone wanting to work with me: “So what do I get?” It’s this question over “So how will things change?”
A dear friend shared an example from a book she was re-reading the other day. It was about the role of a sculptor.
A sculptor’s job is not to add. The value is in taking away, refining, getting rid of excess, and chiseling to perfection.
What if we thought about our value that way? In helping someone see, hear, understand something quicker and more easily? And what that would actually require was attention and ruthless prioritization.
Our attention is spread so thin. Why would we want something more to focus on and try to understand? I am happy to pay for someone to make my life easier.
If you’ll notice, my clients didn’t ask me to add more. I did it because I wasn’t sure of myself. And I wanted to reduce the likelihood of someone being underwhelmed.
In other words, this behavior is actually self-imposed more than we realize it is.
One of the most frustrating experiences I had last year was with a creative who was growing and dying in the process. She came highly recommended and I was told, “there’s not a more skilled editor out there.”
Unfortunately with that came some BIG TIME ATTITUDE.
She only conducted business in the DMs, which is a whole ‘nother conversation. I wrote to her requesting more images. Immediately messages started flying at me.
“I don’t know if anyone told you but my rates have gone up.”
“You should have been told, but it’s not my problem if you weren’t.”
“I’ve been working 10 hour days for two years and I need to charge my worth. My price is my price and that’s it.”
Notice I hadn’t even had a chance to respond in this tirade of messages.
This is what resentment looks like. When you don’t charge what you need to charge. When you take on too many clients. When you’ve spread yourself too thin.
You start hating the work that you once yearned to do.
WHAT’S YOUR MONEY STORY?
We all have our money stories. Most of the time they come from the way our family talked about or interacted with money as we were growing up.
For me, the money story is this: you have to work hard for anyone to see your worth, so ignore the things that come naturally to you and keep obtaining new knowledge so you’re worth it.
There was also a little “we aren’t money people” thrown in there, but I’ve already shared what this looks like in real life.
What’s the money story you grew up with?
Was it that money was always around you but you didn’t have to work for it so you feel shame around it?
Was it that there’s never enough so you have to stow it away and stay in the paycheck to paycheck mode?
Were you like me and you had enough and to want more was selfish or unattainable?
I saw an Instagram post the other day by @sitwithwhit. It said:
Awards people try to win that don’t actually exist:
- Never put themselves first
- Most stressed
- Worried more than anyone because they care
- Slept the least
- Stayed on that weird diet for the longest
- Sacrificed their entire life for others
- Liked by everyone
So many of these, I believe, are tied back to that concept of worth.
That’s why I disregard any message that tells me to charge my worth. Who’s telling me my worth? If I’m making more than my mom did have, should I stop trying?
If I’m not charging as much as a competitor am I failing?
Is my entire worth based on what someone will pay me for my intellectual property?
Complicated questions, I know. But here’s how that harmful message plays out in real life…
Last year I was thinking of bringing someone on as a subcontractor for a project. It was a big project that I could have done myself but it was around the holidays and I felt more comfortable having a back-up.
The week prior we had talked about hourly rates and she said she knew she needed to raise hers to $175.
So when I was thinking of her for this project, that’s the number I had in mind. Fast forward to asking her to confirm her availability and rate so I could put it in the formal proposal.
$225 an hour, but $250 would be great.
Look, I’m all for negotiating and getting your coin, but arbitrarily charging an amount because you feel you should “charge your worth” or the budget is big, that feels like games.
I couldn’t accept that because honestly I couldn’t pay a subcontractor what I was charging. But that’s a little besides the point.
What I want to focus on is the motivation behind what you’re charging. Because what nobody is talking about is that there are absolutely industry norms. And you can charge below, at, or above those industry norms but you’ve got to be able to articulate for yourself, and sometimes for others, the value in that price. Notice I didn’t say value in YOU.
I commonly see people charging a certain amount because someone else charges that. But I can tell you an industry veteran should be charging more than someone five years out of school. And I hold steady on that.
You could charge $500 an hour and if in that time you’re giving me solid advice that’s moving me forward substantially, sure. But $500 for 40 hours of work, that’s going to be looked at differently.
I know this isn’t a popular opinion. Many people want to say, “It doesn’t matter what your experience is if you can do the job.” But in my own experience, after working for over 15 years, I can say that there’s beauty in incremental growth.
I’m not immune to this.
Recently I submitted a proposal for some project-based work and a 3-month retainer following on the tail end.
When the CEO of the company saw the proposal, he said, “$300 an hour? That’s what I pay my attorney!”
When my point of contact came back and told me that I said, “Yep, that’s right.”
And I could stand steady there because I knew a few things:
- I wasn’t charging like typically agencies were – billing group meetings and other admin time to clients.
- I didn’t need 40 hours to get something done that could be done in 30.
- They had hired and fired two firms before me. That showed me that a) they were going to require a lot more time finessing than anticipated or b) you pay for what you get.
If I were just throwing a number out there I wouldn’t be able to substantiate my proposal.
OVERDELIVERING, OVERWHELMING, AND OVERPREPARING
We’re seeing a swing right now – from the old narrative of: bide your time and learn as much as possible through the traditional academic paths to do that work you want to do with the skills you have.
I celebrate this for a few reasons.
Number one – I wholeheartedly believe not everyone needs to go to college. I worked in college admissions and I saw it all the time – students who were bright but struggled in the academic setting.
And number two – the academic way of thinking is harmful, especially to women. It tells us we have to prove what we believe. Just think of a dissertation. You go in with a hypothesis and everyone’s goal is to rip it apart for it to be able to stand on its own merits.
When I look at creatives specifically, whether you’re working for yourself or someone else, I see three big concerns when it comes to money.
We overdeliver, we get overwhelmed, or we overprepare.
Let’s break that down.
Overdelivering. We’ve already touched on this. The main point is that when we raise our prices we think we need to add in a bunch more deliverables. We fail to believe that simply getting to the point faster is worth more money.
If you’re dealing with this right now, turn your attention to value outside of monetary.
What’s the time value you’re providing? Time is the one thing we can’t get more of, so how are you saving your clients time? If you’re getting it to them faster, what’s that worth?
What’s the energy value you’re providing? A lot of people will try to do something themselves before hiring out. What’s the energy savings you’re providing by taking it off their plate?
What’s the relational value you’re providing? Are you easy to work with? Is there value in someone being actually seen, witnessed, and understood because you take your time with them rather than rushing through in a transactional manner?
There’s a ton of value outside of simply saving people money.
This shows up when we say, “I don’t want to charge more because I don’t want work to take over my life.”
There’s that belief popping up again that well paying work is hard, exhausting work.
My first business was a wedding planning business. I held tightly to this belief because I had a full-time job at the time. I thought that if I charged little, people wouldn’t be able to expect me to be available all the time.
Oh but they did.
In fact, when I took on the highest paying job it turned out to be the easiest. Because the bride valued the specific role I was playing and kept it to that role.
You get to set boundaries and expectations, not your clients.
When you’re in a leap, increasing your prices or “upleving” as they say, you can be scared and still say yes.
You can not know the outcome and still say yes. You can feel unprepared and unqualified and still say yes.
Many of us hold tight to the fear that once an idea is executed it will never be as good as it was in our minds, so we overcompensate.
Learning is, and will always be, a part of the process. No one expects perfection and those that do are not good clients.
When you take on a project at a price you’re not happy with, you can’t blame anyone but yourself.
HOW TRANSPARENCY WITH PRICING CAN HELP YOUR BUSINESS
I believe we should be having money conversations early. This is a challenge to myself.
For a long time I waited to share pricing until after a consult call. Now I realize that’s a protective mechanism. Deep down I feel like if I can woo them enough on a call, the price will be irrelevant.
But it’s silly to waste our time and theirs.
You don’t know how much people think you cost. I’ve actually had people tell me they thought I was much more expensive than I am. So they don’t reach out.
Sure, you’ll also have the people that can’t afford you. But if they like you enough they’ll come back when they can.
In order to avoid resentment, we’ve got to get more comfortable with having money conversations early and often.
And what comes next is being comfortable hearing “no.”
I priced for a long time for the “yes.” What I mean by that is naming a price that I thought would be a no-brainer for people. I, for some reason, thought I could anticipate what would get people there.
People who cite price as a reason for not booking are rarely not booking because of the price alone. People pay for things they value.
There are many different sales trainings out there teaching people how to get past the “no.” But for me, I don’t want to work with someone I have to convince.
I don’t want to memorize a script or the three rebuttals when someone says they won’t be moving forward. If we want people to believe “no” is a complete sentence, we need to honor that ourselves.
I used to think to be high-end meant you had to tailor everything to everyone. But now I fully embrace the fact that we alone know what it takes a client to get the result they’re looking for. They don’t even though they’ll try to drive that ship.
I had an experience like this recently. A prospective client kept saying, “Yes, this all sounds good, but what do I need? What will I get out of it?”
He wasn’t willing to engage in the process to uncover what he needed. It was a frustrating but enlightening experience. And I came to this conclusion: I’m not a grocery store. You can’t just walk down the aisles and pick and choose what you want and expect the same result.
Our job, as the expert, is to help them understand what they need and be confident explaining that. This is the only way they’ll know. If you don’t speak up, you can’t blame them for having unrealistic expectations.
After working with a client once, she said this to me:
“People don’t understand why strategy is important. It never occurred to me how important strategy would be. I even struggled to see how it would all come together. You filled the holes in my message from conversations that you took note on and perfected.”
Listen to this feedback when you’re given it. This right here are the client objections stated perfectly for me to acknowledge and interrupt. Embrace it and believe it.
In the end, above everything I’ve talked about today, there’s one simple question I want to ask you: “Do you need to be accessible to everyone?”
Often, under our excuses is this fear of feast or famine. If we don’t get the yes from this person, we won’t have any work.
If we pile on now, we’ll be safe if nothing comes in next month.
If we don’t mention the scope creep, they’ll see the added value and won’t feel like we’re penny pinching.
But that’s the breeding ground for resentment.
So here’s what we collectively need to do.
- Know our limits and start a waitlist when we’ve reached that limit.
- When scope creep is happening, help clients see those boundaries and charge for added work.
- Embrace the “yes and” mentality. “Yes I can do that and here’s what that will take.”
- Charge friends and family, even if that’s a discounted rate. We make a living off of our work, point blank.
I’ll end with this: what we’re aiming for is an equal energetic exchange.
And you get to decide that. What feels equal? That’s not always going to be measured in monetary terms.
Agency owner, Tahira White of 19th & Park, said this at a recent event I attended:
“We should be assessing opportunities by the 3 R’s: Reel (would this help my portfolio?), Revenue (is the money right?), and Relationship (what valuable connections might I get out of this?”
Money makes the world go round, but it’s not always about the money. If you were to ask me, it’s about the humans. It’s about our energy. And it’s about our time, our valuable time.