Thirteen different ways I’ve been paid

Many people spend their entire careers with either hourly or salaried jobs. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to try all sorts of different ways of getting paid for my work. Below are the thirteen (that I could think of). Because I’m interested in this sort of thing, I sorted them into two big buckets: whether I was trading money for time, or whether it was some alternate way to earn a living. Five quick thoughts about this list are at the bottom.

Nine ways I’ve traded time for money

Hourly wages. I filed. I had a student job in college. I worked as a temp in a mail room, as an executive assistant, and selling overstock Coach handbags. This is the most clear way I’ve traded time for money. I show up at a certain place and time and you pay me for the work I do while I am there.

Variable Hourly wages. My first job was selling memberships outside the front gate of the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Instead of a commission on the memberships I sold, though, my incentive was that I would get a higher hourly rate on days when I sold more memberships. (Is this even legal? I’m not sure.) But it was good enough for a 14-year-old.

Stipends. In 2011, I ran for public office. I won, and am now an elected commissioner on the Metro Parks Board of Tacoma (the same board that oversees the zoo where I used to sell memberships, as it happens). As a commissioner, I don’t get a salary, I get a stipend that is set by state law. I earn $114 for any day I have a meeting longer than an hour. A one hour meeting: $114. An eight hour board retreat: still $114. But the total number of days I can claim a meeting is capped at 96 meetings a year. So if I ever have more than 96 days in a year that have a Metro Parks meeting, I don’t get paid for it.

(It’s worth noting that winning this seat was the product of a five-month political campaign, which involved me knocking on the doors of strangers to ask them to vote for me; fundraising so that I could produce mailers, yard signs, and robocalls; and debating my opponent in front of several groups. All that, for $114 for any day I have a meeting longer than an hour. On the flip side, no one can fire me, except for the thousands of voters of Tacoma who could choose not to let me keep my job . Politics can be strange when you think about it.)

Salaried work. Even though many people prefer this to hourly work, it’s still fundamentally trading time for money. The bargain is: you give me enough money that I don’t have to worry about my “hourly rate” and I give you at least 40 hours of my time every week (but probably more).

Part-time salaried work. On the surface, this appears to be the same as regular salaried work, but it’s not. Trust me, I’ve done it. Because implicit in “part-time” is that you are not earning enough that you can stop worrying about your hourly rate. 20 hours a week salaried is simply not the same as 40 hours a week salaried, because the expectations are (likely) that you will work 20 hours a week, but probably more. Except that you’re not being paid enough for it that you can stop worrying about your hourly rate.

By project. The boutique marketing and design company my wife and I run together bills by project. We present a scope of work and a bid for our services. This is different than providing an estimate because whether it takes us 5 hours or 10 hours to deliver, the bill stays the same. It works for us and our clients because we like to know what we’ll be getting from a project and our clients don’t want a surprise if we go long. But because we have no employees and the business is just us — one writer and one designer — it is still fundamentally a trade of time for money. If we don’t find new projects to do, we don’t get paid.

By the word. I have taken many per-word jobs as a writer. During the depths of the recession I was writing stories for as little as $0.10/word. I was able to work that up to $0.50/word and plateaued there for a while, but have steadily been able to increase it from that. I’m a fast writer, generally, but when paid by the word it’s still the same fundamental trade: if I don’t write, I don’t get paid.

By commission. Shortly after college, I sold memberships to the nonprofit where I worked to try to boost my income above my hourly wages. Good salespeople can reduce the time needed for each sale, and they can find higher and higher priced things to sell to maximize that time. But it’s still a trade of time for money. Don’t make sales calls, don’t get paid.

Crowd-sourced. I’ve been operating a Patreon page for the podcast I co-host since February. It is intriguing because whether I make $19 per episode or $1,900 per episode, the amount of work the podcast takes doesn’t fundamentally change. It’s still a trade of time for money — patrons expect that you have done something to earn their backing — but you can scale the sales of it the same way you can scale any product with a low unit cost. That means the “hourly rate” of this model could be — in theory — astronomically high, if I had the audience for it. Of the thirteen ways I’ve been paid, this is the only one where I can see an argument for being on both sides of my “trading money for time” divide.

Four ways I’ve been paid that didn’t trade time for money

By selling ads. I used to sell ads on my blog and niche sites. Now I do pretty well with Amazon affiliate links and Audible bounties instead of ads. Whatever the details or the choice of ad, ads separate the work I do — writing — from the way I earned money — page views or clicks.

By selling things. I’ve sold more than 30,000 books. That’s mostly ebooks but there are plenty of paperbacks and audiobooks in there as well. A book that I wrote and published in 2009 still makes me a few thousand dollars a year without me having to do anything to make it happen. The work is done. All the income in the years since has just made the original time spent more and more valuable.

By selling a business. In 2008, I sold a 20% stake in a business to the majority partner. I’d bought into the business two years before and worked hard during that time. Our employee got paid, but I didn’t, because I was an owner. In a sense, my money was deferred until I sold. (Most people would call this sweat equity.) Of course, it doesn’t always work out this way. A year later I sold a 33% share of a different business for absolutely nothing; that business just didn’t have the value the other one did.

By selling an investment. I used to dabble in the stock market. I invested money in UPS, Starbucks, and other blue chips stocks. I also invested in a company that was going to mine asteroids (I actually did pretty well with that one, if you can believe it). Unlike selling a business, you can’t roll up your sleeves to earn stock. There’s no sweat equity option, unless you’re an employee or a board member. You need money to make money, but the actual work of investing (research, trading online) is highly separated from the payday.

A few short thoughts

  1. Necessity is the mother of invention, and were it not for the recession, this list would be much shorter.
  2. I am particularly interested in the question of trading money for time because time is the one thing that can’t ever be replaced. I have an unknown and finite number of days ahead of me, and that makes me want to find things that I love to do that also give me a chance at breaking the trade of money for time.
  3. There is nothing wrong with salaried or hourly work. I loved my temp job and the flexibility it gave my schedule and the ease with which I could “check out” when I was done. Salaried part time might be hard for some, but for a new parent returning to the workforce or someone looking to gain experience it could be ideal. But it’s good to be cognizant of the trade you’re making and make sure that you’re happy with where your time is going.
  4. If you want to break the trade of time for money, you will almost certainly have to sell something. Practice selling if you want to go that route because it’s almost certainly going to be essential to actually making it happen.
  5. Don’t let my lessons cloud your judgement. Just know this: there are many ways to get paid. I’ve tried thirteen of them, but you can probably find others I haven’t even dreamed of. If you’re looking to change things up with your own schedule, it’s worth exploring.