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Cornered Office

with Mir Kamin

I'm a freelance writer and mother of two working from home, which theoretically means I can set my own schedule so as to best accommodate my family. In reality, "flexible hours" often equals "working too much." Yes, I'm my own boss; no, that doesn't mean life is easy. It's hard to leave the office when you live there. But I love what I do and feel very lucky. And not just because I get paid to work in my pajamas.

To learn more about Mir, check out her profile on Work It, Mom! or visit her blog at

The numbers game: Balancing worth, need and the long view

Categories: Like talking but with more typing, My boss is an idiot, Now I'm free(lancing)


Longtime readers know that every now and then I go on a little rampage about so-called professional freelancers who are willing to work for way less than a viable living wage, and how that impacts the field as a whole and can make it more difficult for those of us charging real rates to find employment. The truth of the matter is that I do believe in two cliches when it comes to this matter: First, that you get what you pay for, and second, that the cream has a tendency to rise.

In short: Yes, I wish everyone would work for reasonable pay, because it would make life easier for all of us, but I also believe that those of us who are true professionals justify our higher rates with quality work, and there will always be a market for that.

That said, there’s not too much of a problem as a seasoned professional when deciding whether or not to take a job that only pays $5/post (hint: hell no). But what about the job that pays just a little bit less than what you’re currently charging? What about the job that has the tendency to expand and fill more time, rendering the pay rate too low?

What about if you really need the money?

Here’s a couple of examples from my recent experience, both true but hopefully sanitized of identifying markers:

First Scenario
I used to have a gig doing a very specific sort of weekly article, and due to a reorganization, the section for which I was providing this content was eliminated. I was bummed out (obviously), but felt like the service I’d been providing there was something unique and interesting enough that I might be able to get another organization to pick me up. (Side note: Always check your contract to make sure there’s nothing prohibiting you from pursuing a similar gig elsewhere if the work arrangement ends.)

I shopped the idea around and wasn’t able to get another organization to bite. I was bummed, but let it go.

About a year later, out of the blue I was approached by a new company about reproducing this content for them. We had several conversations about it and I was completely stoked. But when it came time to talk numbers, they wanted to pay me… one fifth of what I’d previously been paid. After some negotiation they came up to about one third of what I’d previously been paid.

I declined to take the job. It should be noted, however, that I wasn’t in a state of “need” when this happened.

Second Scenario
I was hired for a weekly gig at a really generous pay rate, and heaved a sigh of relief because I’d been looking for another revenue stream to fill in some recently-ended contracts. This job was perfect; it didn’t take much time, it paid well, and I liked the people with whom I was working.

Right after I accepted this job, a second outlet where I’d been having some casual discussions about a contract came to me with an offer. It was for less than I would usually charge, and looked like the sort of thing that could expand to fill quite a bit of time. I didn’t really want it, though there were some politics involved because the offering party works with another client of mine. But thanks to this other big contract I’d just taken, I was able to tell them (with a clear conscience) that I didn’t have time. I was told to please let them know if things changed; they’d be happy to hire me on later if I could manage it.

Two months in on the new contract, the company reorganized and laid off all the freelancers. Whoops! I was sorry to lose the work and sorrier still to lose the income.

In a brief fit of worry, I considered taking the job I’d turned down, now that I had time. But it still wasn’t for what I would consider a reasonable salary. I kind of felt like I needed the money… but I also felt like committing myself to an underpaid contract would be a poor business move.

I declined to take the job; I’m not in desperate need, right now… but I worry about what I would’ve done if I was.

So what does this all mean?
I think that it’s easy to have standards and limits when it comes to extremes and/or when you’re not in dire financial straits. But if you really need the money… if the proposed payment is close to what you charge… what then? Do you take it?

I’m not sure I know the answer.

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6 comments so far...

  • I wonder if there’s a way to negotiate the contract so that you scale back the work to make it level with their budget? Clearly there are multiple specifics that would be in play and these negotiations would be done on a case-by-case basis… but if I really needed the money, I’d probably try to play that angle and hope that it built into something larger down the road.

    Rachel  |  July 12th, 2011 at 11:44 am

  • These conversations are so difficult for one glaring reason:

    Writers don’t ever talk numbers.

    Until that starts to happen, none of us will be able to follow the advice of seasoned pro’s.

    Miss Britt  |  July 12th, 2011 at 1:01 pm

  • Britt, I don’t think it’s true that writers never talk numbers. I’m also unclear on how this conversation isn’t useful unless there are numbers.

    Someone posted a link to a recent article that actually had some survey results on freelance writing rates, though for the life of me I can’t seem to find it now. I believe the upshot seemed to be $50-$100/hour, which I thought was reasonable.

    Mir  |  July 12th, 2011 at 1:15 pm

  • I think what Brit may have been referring to is the fact that if seasoned writers (generally) don’t talk numbers, less-seasoned writers don’t even know what a typical acceptable pay rate even is; so they may accept low-paying gigs, thus bringing down the pay scale for all writers, simply because they don’t really have any other information about what they should and should not accept. Is that it, Brit?

    Shannon  |  July 18th, 2011 at 2:21 pm

  • Just saw these replies - and YES, what Shannon said. :-)

    Miss Britt  |  July 19th, 2011 at 9:23 pm

  • I’m a bit late on this I know… but… re appropriate rates…my husband always tells me to use what other services charge as a guide - plumbers, IT people and so on. His reasoning is that I offer a specialized service needed by the client, so the client should pay me the same as they pay experts in other fields. Of course my overheads are lower, being a freelancer working from home, so my overall charge mightn’t be quite as high, but I agree with this spirit - and it’s in keeping with the figures Mir gave.

    There are a couple of problems though. One is that people don’t always value writers as highly as other experts. Another is that the very factors that make it easy for me to be freelance also make it easy for people living in other, less expensive countries to do exactly the same work. So, I am easily undercut… which sometimes puts me in your dilemma Mir - do I accept the job or not? Always a tricky decision!

    Emma  |  July 20th, 2011 at 11:42 am