Ever since I got a full-time job right after college, I've always kept quiet about how much I made. Aside from myself, only my mom knew exactly how much I was making. The post-graduation wave of friends and batchmates getting employed was my (and I'm sure a lot of other people's) introduction to the different salary grades and salary expectations for different industries and fields.
I started following the unwritten rule: Never talk to your friends about how much you earn. I never questioned why.
I started noticing and absentmindedly following the unwritten rule: Never talk to your friends about how much you earn. I never questioned why. Maybe it was rude? It probably made people feel uncomfortable? And because I was a fresh grad happy to have landed my dream job right off the bat, I didn't think about how much I was earning and was just thankful I was making money doing something I truly enjoyed.
But things changed when I started freelancing. I—quite literally—couldn't afford not to talk about how much I made anymore.
I had to quit my full-time job when I pursued my graduate studies in the U.S. As a new international student, I wasn't allowed to work in the U.S. unless I worked on-campus or went through tons of paperwork. So, to pay for some of my own expenses, I occasionally wrote for publications in the Philippines. I continued doing so until after I graduated. I also started content writing for clients and even started working as a part-time social media manager for a local group of restaurants.
For all of these positions, as well as others that didn't push through, I always talked to my friends about how much the pay was. Not so I can boast about it—I honestly don't think it's something to even boast about. (In this economy?) It's really just so I would know if I was being paid properly.
Getting paid as a freelancer
During my experience as a freelancer, I've realized that how much I get paid is based on (1) how much work I put into a project and (2) industry standards. Talking to my friends and peers about how much different publications pay, or if a company's offer is good enough, or if I should charge by the hour or by word count helps me with both of those factors.
When I talk to my friends about how much I'll earn from a project, they often tell me to have a specific list of things I'm willing to do for that certain price. This helps me gauge the first factor of how much work I put into it. Am I willing to clock in the hours? Drive to and attend events? Is it something that's right up my alley or out of my comfort zone? Is the entire experience worth it or is it too much of a hassle? The combined knowledge of my friends helps me make my own decision about what and how much I'm about to take on. There are times they know when a project is more than what it seems to be on paper because they themselves have lived through it. This allows me to adjust my rates (and expectations) accordingly.
You can't really compare the different skills for each job, but this helps me see which companies really care for their employees.
Their experiences also inform me about what the (not-so-high) industry standards are. I don't just talk to my writer friends, either. I also talk to other people in the industry—photographers, videographers, graphic designers, even those in charge of the business side of things. You can't really compare the different skills for each job, but this helps me see which companies really care for their employees. I mean, if I found out a photographer earns more at one company compared to the one I work for, then I can assume their writers earn more, too.
It also helps to know if they get their checks earlier. Or if they conveniently get their pay directly deposited to their bank account instead of them having to physically pick up the check. All of these seemingly small things add up to become dealbreakers for freelancers like me.
I used to write one to two 1,000-word feature articles every month for a magazine when I was an undergrad. For free. Sometimes, it also involved interviewing talents and painstakingly transcribing the interviews. I only found out that I could have been paid when I finally said no to an assignment (because it was my finals week) and they counter offered with compensation that wasn't nearly enough.
They "had a budget" that month, they told me. This coming from a magazine that had the budget to fly to international locations and hire foreign teams for cover shoots for every issue. I still said yes—out of guilt and because I was excited about being paid—but I never picked up my measly check. I realized it would just cost the same for a QC girl like me to venture all the way to Makati and back. (They eventually folded.)
In the creative industry, it's so easy to be lured into the promise of "experience" or "exposure," all for the sake of doing something you love.
I didn't have a friend in the same field back then to ask for advice from. I didn't even have friends who were already working—period. And in the creative industry, it's so easy to be lured into the promise of "experience" or "exposure," all for the sake of doing something you love. Sure, experience and exposure could get you somewhere. But how far can you really go if you can't even afford your day-to-day life?
I did the most that I could back then. I was writing and taking any project just so I could build my portfolio. But if I did have a friend, it would've been great to hear their opinions if what I was doing was worth it or not or if I should have negotiated for pay. Talking about salaries should be as simple as asking for career advice—because it is.
How I talk about money with my friends
I know that it's still a touchy topic for a lot of people—though I don't think it should be in the context of knowing how much you should be paid. I only bring up the topic if I already have a good relationship and rapport with the person I'm going to ask and if I know that they have insights I could only get from them and their experience.
I don't directly ask how much they make. (Sometimes, I'd ask for their rates in a professional setting, but that's different.) Instead, I'll share my dilemma and ask them for their opinion about it. If they bring up their salary on their own, then great. If they don't, it's fine because I don't really have to know.
I usually don't specify the exact amount and just give a rough estimate. The most specific I'd get would be defining what salary grade the pay falls under, which you can easily Google. I don't get specific because again, I'm not doing it to boast. I'm doing it so that my friends aka reference points and I have a general idea of what the right amount is and center our discussion around that.
And not once have they ever found it rude. I have had friends boast about how much they earn (i.e. "Oh no, I don't know how to spend all this money I'm making. Life is so hard."). Now that's off-putting—but also a very different conversation from the one I'm talking about.
The only ones who should find it uncomfortable to talk about salaries are the people and companies who don't pay enough. This has cultivated a taboo culture around open discussions of rates and compensation because it would cost them more if we found out how much the other was making. Talking about your salary with your friends should be and is a healthy conversation if you're doing it for the right reason—getting paid what you're worth.
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