Financial ('payday' induced) Feels
It’s PAY DAY! Well, so screamed the Internet, social media and my inbox lately. If it wasn’t ‘hot right now dresses to buy on pay day!’ it was ‘The PAY DAY EDIT!’ or ‘drinks time, for it is pay day weekend and we are richer than kings and queens!’
Annoying, when you're freelance and, well, in the game of roulette that is getting paid when you have multiple projects with multiple clients, there's no such thing as once-a-month payday. And negotiating over money, waiting for money to land in your account and trying to make money work month-on-month when one can bring loads and another a trickle of income brings on many feels for me.
There’s the angst as I wait for a contact to agree to the fee I’ve quoted (that did say 'suggested' but I realised I need to watch my language!). There’s the nerves of chasing up money, feeling like you’re a pest. Then there’s the shame – yep, shame – that I feel towards my partner because I don’t earn anything near what I used to earn when we met. That I am relying on him, often, to pay the bills that need paying on time while I then pay when I can. It’s hard, following a dream career, and having to feel these feelings, when you know you’re talented and your work is worth good money and that money being paid on time. But it often isn’t.
There is the daily rollercoaster ride, more twisty-turny than the old bone-shaker on Santa Cruz pier (and I know, I’ve ridden both), of wondering if you have enough cash for everything from the mortgage and bills to a holiday, a day off, or that bottle of wine. Hell, for a glass of wine.
We journos have a bad time of both being paid a good amount for our work and being paid that money within a reasonable amount of time (my terms on my invoice are 28 days, and often not met). But this isn’t exclusive to journalists, I’m sure. I think this is a huge topic across the board, because daily on Facebook freelance groups, I see people asking over and over about what to charge, how to chase late payments, whether they should accept what they know deep down is a low fee. There are questions about wanting to quote for a new client but not wanting to out-price ourselves, to not put them off by being ‘too expensive’. When a friend said recently of a client ‘they couldn’t afford me’ it seemed a little Wolf of Wall Street but then I realised this was the ideal mindset. Work out what your rate should be, and quote it. Easy, right? No, it takes a lot of practice, and I’m only really just beginning.
Another thing for freelance journalists is that we’re usually paid 'on publication'. That means when a story or article we pitch and write actually runs, the payment process begins. We're not paid that same day the article goes live or the magazine hits the shelves. Instead, usually the invoice goes into the accounts system once the 'product' is on the page. We also have to deal with so-called kill fees – we often only get half if it isn’t used. Because often we're told something ‘doesn’t work' for a publication anymore. Could be they've dwelled on it and changed their mind, or a celebrity hook has now become 'old'. It also could be they feel it doesn't meet the brief, but that is, arguably, also subjective).
Either way, that can then lead to it being shelved and us getting a so-called kill fee. Usually half. Some publications have this as part of their commissioning terms. But it’s hard to go back and say, actually, my commissioning terms are that if you decide you want a feature and I write it, you should pay me the full fee. There’s a lack, sometimes, (well, most times), of payment being a negotiated business deal and more ‘here’s the offer, take or leave it’. Which is, I think perhaps particularly pertinent to my industry but I’d be interested to know if you’re not a journalist and feel this feel, too. Is this something that happens in your industry, too? How have you dealt with this kind of thing?
The comparison we freelancers often use when talking about payments and kill fees in particular is building work. You might have heard it before, but for those who haven’t, it goes along the lines of: Imagine that piece of work was a building job. The client chooses the tiles, the worktop, the flooring. You agree a price, and the work is done on time. But then when it's built and they come to see it, they think 'oh, I don't like those tiles they're not trendy anymore' and they tell you, the builder they’ll only pay half. Or imagine that you owned a clothes shop, and a customer came in and said ‘I love that dress but can I take it home and if I wear it, I’ll pay you. If not, I’ll give you half – and, by then, it might not be the right season for you to sell it to another customer’. I know there’s a returns policy on clothes, but you get my point. When I had my kitchen done I had to pay some money up front, to confirm the agreement, and I know people who do this with freelance work. It’s something that, while I know it could help me worry less about money because it’d help cash flow, actually just leaves me worrying how I’d even begin to start doing it. I am scared to even begin negotiations.
In my industry, some places pay quicker - websites, for example, have paid within a few weeks of the article going live, or faster - some even slower as the invoice goes into the accounts system once it's published so it can be as long as 28 or 30 days ‘from’ publication. So, if you're commissioned in early June, and the feature runs late July, and then the invoice goes through (often with you having to re-send to a different person), you might not get that money until late August at the earliest. There is an issue with who processes the invoice, sometimes. A person who commissions copy is not in the accounts dept, after all. But that sends me to another area of feels: To chase them, to chase accounts, to get frustrated and angry and het up because we’re spending more time trying to see who we should ask if we’ll be paid our fee now the work’s been done. You can be left feeling ghosted at every turn, while watching that overdraft creep up and up along with the 'I'm useless, I've failed' barometer.
If I’m honest, I feel nervous writing this, as I worry that someone I write for will see it and think ‘oh she’s saying we don’t pay on time’. But I’m not saying any one place does or doesn’t – more that there’s a culture of payment on publication and I know it’s often the norm to be asked to do work ‘on spec’ or as a ‘test’ even though you’ve got a vast portfolio – like it is in journalism. It’s hard to feel valued when that’s the offer on the table. And not feeling valued is not a good freelance feel.
For me, some recent experiences of financial feels include invoicing for two features on the same day, but being paid weeks apart because one was not processed alongside the other. I’ve also been delayed by a payment process where I invoiced, was asked to re-send as a pdf, then to re-send again with different details, that I hadn’t been asked to include previously. We freelancers often say ‘Imagine not being paid all your salary on time’, but then, is that the deal? If you have a salary there’s a guaranteed date? That we’ve bought into this ‘payment mayhem’?
But enough of the logistics. Because what I want to talk about right now is the Feels of payday. The Feels of the money situation. Because all of this process, from negotiating a fee through to getting that money, leaves me, and I'm sure many of you too, with some very strong negative effects on our mental health. I get nervous when I invoice, as if I’m asking a favour. I know this needs to change. But it took me a week to get the ‘guts’ to re-do that invoice and send it. And when invoices aren’t paid on time, there’s then the chasing. Emailing to say ‘Hi… sorry (there’s that sorry again!), can you tell me maybe perhaps when you might DEIGN TO PAY ME FOR THE WORK I DID AND YOU’VE USED?’.
First of all there's negotiating the fee. Many of us do this but it's often with a desperately nervous hand that we type 'Is there any leeway?'. We approach it, often, as a 'please' thing. Asking a favour, 'daring' to see if there's more money in the pot. Of course there's more money – it just depends if they want to spend it on you, or that feature.
I get this a lot with day rates as well as commissions. I do shifts in-house at magazines and websites, and am paid a day rate. It's been, generally the same rate on offer since I started doing freelance work in 2005. I was offered that rate, let’s call it £X, twice this week for work. My reply used to be along the lines of 'Is there any room for an increase?', which I felt was typed with a quiet, small voice, a mouse pleading for a bit more cheese (Muppets Christmas Carol ref for any fans out there).
Quick note: I’m not keen on talking about my rates – I’m a bit old fashioned like that and wonder if I shouldn’t be? Perhaps one for another post!
But, recently, I've gone with a new tack. And that's to say 'My day rate is £Y’. And state a fee that is actually what I believe a day rate for my work in this field should be. Will it lose me work? Will they say no? Maybe. I then have to decide if I still want to take the work. That’s hard, because in such a saturated industry, there is always someone else who will take the work. Bartering is not really a strong tool when there’s another person who’ll do the job for the fee you won’t accept.
If, like me, you are freelance but have also had staff jobs, then you'll know the change from payday to ‘pay-eh?’ You'll understand how you have to start cutting your cloth according to your means. When I was on the features desk of a national newspaper, I knew I'd get a nice chunk of money in my account at the end of every month and I over spent as a result. Now, being freelance again, and having to budget around different projects and the feast and famine nature of the work, I am much more careful with what I spend. And actually it brings certain lightness to my wellbeing. I don’t get the regular manicures I used to. But guess what? I don't miss them as much as I thought I would. And actually, planning to get gel nails done for a friends wedding in a couple of weeks really feels like a treat now, rather than just 'better get my nails re-done.
Same goes for clothes. I buy far less now, but since I've still got enough to take to a car boot sale on Sunday I’d say I've got plenty. In fact, I love a car boot sale or a bit of Ebay to raise some cash. I even dog sit for a lady who lives locally as a cash-making side-hustle. I’m going to write about the dogs another time, because they bring a lot to my Freelance Feels, not least how I am often more productive when working from someone else’s house! I don't avoid shopping altogether, but having to be more mindful about it has been good for me.
So, we worry about asking for more money, we worry about when it'll come into our account. And perhaps worst of all, we have a rollercoaster experience when it comes to seeing it land in our accounts. For example, I am waiting for some money that has been paid on time. I know it's on the way because I've been emailed a remittance advice. But I need to keep checking my account to see if it's actually there. I open the banking app and I can feel my heart rate rising. I get prickles all over my skin, wondering if today will be the day my account shows it's in credit for the first time in about two months. I don't hold the client responsible for these feelings. After all, they're paying within those blessed 28 days. But it's still a huge thing to have to check, every morning, if you have more money. Being able to rely on payday is, I think, a huge relief for your mental health that you don’t always appreciate when you’re in a full time job. By contrast, having to wonder when money will come in is mentally exhausting. That's time we should and could be spending talking to new clients or pitching out new ideas.
Is it just part of the freelance life that we buy into that we have to juggle when we get paid? That we have to have a buffer before we go freelance (this is a good thing to do if you can. Always have something in an account to pay those bills). A buffer that a staffer would use for holidays, or renovations, for ‘rainy days’ rather than payment mess-ups.
I’ve ready comments on social media saying that not being paid on time is the client therefore not paying our bills and it might be controversial to say, but I don’t agree. I was in that situation myself, in winter 2017. I was right up to my overdraft limit (thousands) and nothing was due in. but the mortgage and 'Christmas' was due out. I landed a three-month fixed term contract on a worthy day rate, and was delighted. But when I was told that I'd only be paid for the first time in another 6 weeks, I broke. Frustrated and exhausted from the dance of bringing in my ID and details, of registering on their pay system as well as worrying about whether I’d land the contract and be able to move forward with my career and pay the bills, I burst into tears in the middle of the office – in front of the new team I was working with, new boss, the lot. MEGA FEELS.
'What am I going to do?!' I wept to the office manager. She was kind, but firm. Could I borrow from someone? Extend my overdraft? It was clear - and I agree in hindsight - that it wasn’t their job to pay my bills on time. It was their job to pay me on time, and if you think about it, often when you start a new job you might have a gap between your payday from job one and your payday from job two. Again, I could have negotiated or walked away. I could have said, when interviewed, ‘I will need paying within X of beginning’. But you don’t want to come across as demanding when you’re trying to land a job. I wish I had asked when payment would be, as I could have at least prepared for that mentally, before that moment in the office. Hindsight is the freelancers best friend, eh?
But that's what the financial feels do to us. Makes us cry desperate, worried, childlike tears of fear. Fear that we've failed to balance the books, fear that we'll miss that rent or mortgage payment. There's a relief, too, when we know we have been or will be paid - that finally something is going to shift and we can spend that all-important brain time that we've been dedicating to money worries to something more productive, like sourcing new clients and contacts.
Personally, the financial feels are about kudos, too. I was used to having money, to treating myself and being able to put my card down at dinner and not really worry about the price of the meal too much. I was used to a quick 'smash and grab' in Primark, where I would just get a few new dresses, some accessories, and laugh that it suddenly added up to £70. So there's a certain shift that I've had to go through and I think our language is often key, here. How we speak about our financial feels to ourselves and other people can help shape how they make us feel moving forward. Instead of 'I'm skint', try 'I'm saving for XXX'.
Finally, I wanted to touch upon the wider money feels outside of journalism. I keep hearing at event and panel discussions how we shouldn't ever accept the first offer, how we should set our rates and walk away if the client won't meet them. To me, this all started to feel very business-like. And in my head, I'm not a businesswoman, I'm a writer! What place did such strong negotiations have in my world?
But it turns out, much like a diet or exercise regime, they are muscles that are stronger the more you flex them. The first time I said 'I need X' for this', I was nervous, agitated, worried. The third time, I thought 'I'll leave that with you'. It's something my partner does and while his work is more niche, why not apply it to my own? Why accept the first offer of money? If someone likes your idea, then they should pay a reasonable rate for it. Being ‘brave’ enough to walk away can be hugely empowering, but I know it depends on so many things, not least the amount of money in the bank and the level of feels in your heart that day.
For me, moving forward, this will also involve looking at my client base. At the moment, my main clients are newspapers, magazines and websites, and I often pitch to those that don’t pay top whack. So perhaps I need to spend some time finding those that pay more, or those who will accept my higher rate. Or clients outside of that domain that still need sparkling copy, as it’s always called, and can use my skills but are prepared to pay a decent day rate. Even as I write this, I think ‘will mags and websites not use me now because I’ve written about them?!’. That’s the control the person who holds those purse strings often has over us.
But I’m also learning, through networking, that there are people who have found ways to deal with their financial feels. The more I meet up with non-journalist self-employed people, the more I realise that journalists often have a particularly bad time of it when it comes to getting paid. I hear people at panel talks reveal things like ‘I state in my contract that I require 50% up front’ and I think ‘If I said that to a mag they’d just plain refuse’. Because they would. Well, I’ve never tried it. Perhaps I will, sometime, to prove my own point…
There are anomalies, sure. Writing for a brand that you admire and want a byline with (more on byline feels another time). Or a brand that might take you to higher places, open some doors. I have accepted lower fees for such connections, but each time I do, I know deep down I am selling myself short. Recently, someone offered me a fee and said ‘does that sound ok?’. I wish I had simply said, ‘No, I would expect X for this piece of work’. But it was a new contact I wanted to nurture. More feels – that little schoolgirl who wants to please is back again…
The key here, I think, is to try and stop - or reduce - the daily worry. While you're negotiating on future projects, to stop thinking about money all day long when you're meant to be finishing off projects or making calls. I am trying, daily, to change my narrative around money because I know when I do, I'll change my financial and cashflow feels.
With that in mind, here’s some suggestions to get you started that I shall try to embrace myself:
1. Try and limit checking your bank account to once a day. Imagine you're on a diet and weighing yourself. Doing it every hour will not help matters.
2. Saying that, you do need to keep checking sometimes - that is, don't hide away from your balance. In my experience, avoiding seeing how far into your overdraft you are just makes you more confused and worried. All energy that could be better spent elsewhere.
3. Keep a spreadsheet. Many of you will, but if you're like me and think they're evil, then it'll take time to get used to them. but please try because I am finding they really help. Looking at your monthly earn so far will remind you that you're making a target even if it's not coming in on the same 'pay day' at the end of the month.
4. Talk to your accountant. Is there another way you can work your finances? Lots of people do have a payday - they transfer from one account to their personal one, they pay themselves an agreed a salary. It feels very 'grown up' but it could be the answer for you.
5. Try picking ONE client this week that you’ll push back to on money, and sit with how it feels. I can bet, after the nerves ebb away, there’s an overwhelming feeling of empowerment, and an urge to do it again. And again.