Every time I get a new assignment, I ask for more money. Even if they’re paying me more than I was expecting, even if it’s my dream assignment, even if it’s a publication I love—I ask for more. And no matter your profession, you should, too.
I’m a freelance writer and editor based in New York, so I know that at any given point, there is at least one other person with a comparable skill set within a half-mile radius of me, if not within a three foot radius, if not right next to me while I’m doing my grocery shopping at the over-crowded Trader Joe’s in Union Square. And that’s just IRL—there are hoards of people who do what I do on the Internet. In writers’ groups on Facebook, I see dozens of people competing for an article that pays seven cents a word. SEVEN. CENTS. A. WORD. So it’s scary to ask for more: What if they say “no”? Who’s to say that the assigner won’t just pass over me for one of these other people, who are apparently fine being paid so little?
Well, here’s the crazy thing: That rarely happens, even when I’ve asked for more. Most of the time, I get the fee increased or the assignment adjusted in a way that makes the project worth it, or I decide to do the assignment at their original offer. But let’s back up a bit, because getting to the point where I felt comfortable asking for more money was definitely a process.
A few years ago, I was working at a company where things were not going as planned. I was underpaid, and under-titled, and it felt like no one in the company cared whether or not I had a future there. I could barely make ends meet on my salary: In those days, it was a gamble whether or not I’d be able to pay for my groceries, let alone rent. But even though I was miserable, I kept going down the same path—not only afraid to ask for more, but, frankly, incapable of it.
Then one day, I noticed some little dry, red spots on my chest and neck that weren’t going away. Finally, I went to talk to a doctor about it, and she told me that my cute pox-like symptoms were actually stress-induced psoriasis.
My body was revolting: Letting other people have total control over the biggest aspects of my life was very literally hurting me. I had trusted that my supervisor and my company were going to look after me, but they hadn’t been: No one was going to stand up for me but me. I kicked myself for my initial meeting with the hiring team—why hadn’t I asked for a more livable wage from the get-go? So much of my stress could have been avoided. I left the job soon after.
As a freelancer now, I have the chance to redo those wage discussions all of the time. At first I was still too timid to ask for any more than what was offered—a day and a half’s work for $150? That sounds great, and thank you so much for the opportunity! But when I started working on these assignments, all I could think about was how I wasn’t being paid enough. After a couple of these, I realized that I’d rather say “no” to articles that are underpaid and use that time looking for projects that would either pay me more or pay me more consistently. Not only would I ultimately make more money that way, but I also didn’t want to keep kicking myself for failing to speak up and negotiate.
Around this time, I went to an event about the wage gap where one of the speakers said something that really struck me: When you don’t ask for more money, you’re helping to keep others down, because the pay gap affects all women, some of whom are hurt more by it than you are. For context, according to the National Women’s Law Center, White women on average make $0.80 for every dollar that their male coworkers make, moms make $0.71, Black women $0.61, Native women $0.58, and Latinx women $0.53. When any of us ask for a higher salary, especially those of us who benefit from some form of privilege, we can actually help raise the tide for others. And while yes, I realized that the extra money I made would likely go to Seamless or something equally frivolous (let’s be real), I could no longer help the wage gap keep others down. I think of this every time I get nervous to ask for more—I’m forced to see beyond myself to the bigger picture, and to not allow my impostor syndrome or insecurities to hold me back.
To be clear, it’s not that I was ever really undercharging—the writing and editing industry is so vast and volatile that I’ve seen assignments from $0.07/word to $3/word. It comes down to how I see my own worth and the type of income that I aspire to have. I also wasn’t just picking a number at random: After speaking with some other writer/editor friends, I set my rate, and then I set out to ask for more than that. If the job is offering my rate, then I’ll usually ask for 15-20% more. If the job is offering below my rate, then I tell them that my rate is the minimum that I can do. And if the job is offering more than my rate, I still ask for 15-20% more. It’s an evolving system and there are things that I’m still working on—however, what I do know is that the more I ask for more money, the better I get at it. The worst thing that has ever happened is that sometimes people say “no,” and then I just have to decide whether or not I want to do the job (or need to take it, depending on what my expenses are looking like).
Because I’m freelance, I have to regularly ask myself tough questions like: What do I want from my life? How much money do I need to get that done? What do I value? How does how I spend my money reflect that? I’m not saying that I have the answers to those questions, but what I do know is that by setting my own rate and asking for more, I’m hitting the financial goals that I’ve set for myself. Every time I ask for a higher fee, I see how far I’ve come from being the person who was so scared to ask for what she wanted she literally broke out into hives. I’m not letting other people measure my worth for me anymore. But more importantly, I’m learning to set my own standard for my life. And taking responsibility for my own life feels really, really good.
At least, much better than psoriasis did.
Alanna Greco is a freelance writer and editor living in New York.
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