You Can’t Afford to Be Funny About Money

Knowing your worth is empowering, not tacky

Felicia C. Sullivan
Jun 4, 2018 · 7 min read
Photo by Felix Koutchinski on Unsplash

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You whispered about money, but never talked about it out loud. You were considered crass, gauche, or nosy if you wanted to know what people around you were earning. You were brainwashed by corporate HR departments and admonished by your bosses — both of whom guarded compensation like CIA field assets. They warned against talking about salaries because it created tension and animosity amongst employees, and they made you believe that secrecy drove cultural harmony.

Don’t you want to be blissfully ignorant? Teams don’t compete! Why is Greg’s salary your business? Stay in your lane, focus on your career, and when it comes to the compensation conversation, here’s your monogrammed muzzle.

Here’s my question: why should determining your value be a guessing game? Why should you pay for your employer’s discomfort? Because the only “tension” being created is a spotlight on how employees are priced and valued, and it’s not always fair. I know this because I was in the position of setting compensation and sometimes it was more about who made the most noise, i.e., the squeaky wheel that failed to shut the fuck up. Or sometimes it was about that one particular employee we desperately wanted to retain. However, at the end of the day, it was always about saving money because we weren’t operating a non-profit.

Remember, companies have their best financial interests at heart, not yours.

People tell me that consulting carries with it an expiration date. Come on, Felicia. Do you really want to be hustling and pitching when you’re 60? Do you want to keep playing the career window-shopping game, because that’s all consulting is? Window-shopping. Isn’t it time you thought big, thought about starting your own COMPANY? People cleave to the illusion of certainty and consistency, and although consulting is no longer a euphemism for unemployment, it amazes me how much people want you to mimic the corporate model even though you’re no longer chained to a desk. Build your own passive income products! Hire a team! Create that which is known and familiar!

Talking about money is integral to that “known and familiar” equation. Even in consulting, project and hourly rates are veiled, closely held secrets.

Five years ago I left a job that had been slowly killing me. I no longer believed in the integrity of the leadership and my health was in a precarious state. (Translation: I gained forty pounds. I answered emails at 2:30 a.m. I suffered from severe anxiety attacks, and the only way I tracked the passage of time was via my Google calendar.) I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but I knew it wasn’t what I’d left behind. I was frightened, lost. My generation was taught to stick it out; we believed in the promise of a corporate ladder, even if the ladder was shoddy and poorly assembled. I didn’t know how to price myself, get clients, or build a pipeline.

Up until five years ago, I’d spent the bulk of my 20-year career being the proud owner of office badges and swipe cards. I’d only freelanced as a means to earn easy cash between jobs. But I knew my value. I had the ability to wade through the guru-of-the-moment bullshit and Shiny Object Syndrome to diagnose what was going wrong with a business and how to fix it.

When I started out in 2013, my mentor told me to surround myself with smart people. They don’t need to be in your industry, he said. They don’t need to be the conduits between you and your next project. Focus on people who are rocking out in what they do and can serve as a support group or a guiding light. These are the people who can offer you information about their career and how they’ve endured and thrived.

More importantly, surround yourself with people who have good vibes — especially on the days when getting out of bed feels like an assault. I found my tribe and learned valuable information on how to set up my business and how to manage clients. No longer did I have the comfort and support of a multi-disciplinary team. No longer did I have the ability to punt contracts and invoices to different departments. I became all the departments, and that knowledge shifted the way I managed and grew my business.

Yet, the one thing I noticed was that people were funny about money. No one wanted to talk about it. Believe me when I say finding consultants who were open about their finances was like finding a thimble of water in the Sahara. This baffled me because it wasn’t as if we were working in the same company (although learning about disparity in previous roles has helped me negotiate during my annual reviews) or bidding on the same projects. We should be acting from a place of abundance instead of scarcity.

In an age where people share the most intimate details of their personal life online, money is still taboo. What if I make more? What if I make less? These are the reasons people SHOULD talk about money.

According to a recent Fast Company article, research from HoneyBook revealed that women in the “creative economy” are making 32% less than their male counterparts. From hourly to project rates, we’re making less across the board. Wage disparity isn’t new news, for sure, but the article is a reminder of how important it is to be open and transparent about rates. How are we able to negotiate fairly for ourselves if we don’t have context or a working standard from which we can adapt?

The year before I resigned from my job as an equity partner in a digital agency, I coached women on how to ask for what they deserve. In my experience, I kept seeing men making bold asks (and I worked in a company where the majority were completely deserving), while the majority of women created 50-slide PowerPoint presentation to prove their worth.

There’s truth in the cliche: knowledge is power. Research what your peers are making. Log your achievements. Fight for what you deserve.

Over the past 20 years I’ve built companies and brands, but it’s only recently that I raised my rates and got aggressive about commanding the pay I deserve. Last year, I witnessed a fellow freelance colleague on a project, who had demonstrably less experience, getting paid my rate and received a corporate card. Recently, I had a candid conversation with a consultant who took over a project from where I’d left off and she’s getting 30% more than my rate. I did most of the heavy lifting.

Instead of punching walls and having rage blackouts all over the joint, I took a step back and realized I need to keep having these conversations on an ongoing basis. I alone am responsible for how I price my services, but context is key. Our businesses aren’t stagnant, and complacency could crush a career. I need context on the regular.

Talking about money in the open has helped me create tiered pricing for my services and has also aided me in determining my day rate vs. project rate and how to account for all the outliers in my contracts.

How do you get in the know? Check out’s Comp Analyst tool calculators from Payscale and Glassdoor to determine how you stack based on your industry, experience, and location.

Scan local job boards and sites for matching job descriptions. This will help you see what other businesses are offering, and what skills are required.

Join private Facebook groups related to the industry you’re in. While the rates are wildly diverse, you can cultivate an online tribe to have these more candid conversations and get insight into what they’re charging, and why, and how they’re positioning themselves to their clients. For me, Facebook groups are a market research tool — think of it as brought to life. We live in an age where sites exist to prioritize cheap labor (I’m looking at you, Fiverr and Upwork). In my experience, competing on price is a cruel zero-sum game, one that isn’t sustainable — especially if you’re a seasoned pro.

Connect with friends and peers in your industry. Talk to former bosses and mentors about the parameters they use in contracting consultants. Mentors and tenured peers are a formidable resource, because they’re seeing all the bids that come in and have intel on how consultants are evaluated and selected. This not only helps with your pricing, but with your positioning, as well. I’ve connected with friends of friends who do what I do and we’ve compared notes on what we’ve charged and how to manage push-back from prospective clients.

I’ve also found that some entrepreneurs have been more open about the money conversation, and I’ve followed their podcasts and blog posts to gain critical perspective. Regina Anaejionu, Tara Gentile, Paul Jarvis, and Ashley Ambirgeher 25 Days to $100K email challenge is incredible and FREE — have all been invaluable peer resources. Check out their blogs and podcasts because they’re operating in the trenches and are generous with their learnings, missteps, and insights. There are also online classes that help you navigate the freelance life, including Creative Class and Ted Leondhart’s Worth It: Negotiation for Creatives.

Remember this iconic scene from Jerry Maguire? I remember watching the film in the theater and laughing, not realizing how prescient the scene was going to be in my career. While it’s true that confidence comes from within, a little context and a lot of knowledge definitely helps. Don’t let the people who determine what you earn dictate how you price yourself. Don’t let money conversations remain in the vault. Talk about money and talk about it often. It’s not crass or gauche or nosy, it’s power.

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Felicia C. Sullivan

Written by

Published Novelist & Marketing Exec. I build brands & tell stories. Books: Newsletter: Hire me:

Grow It Alone
Grow It Alone
Grow It Alone

About this Guide

Grow It Alone

A scrappy guide to meeting, landing, and keeping clients from author, brand builder, and marketing strategist Felicia Sullivan.

A scrappy guide to meeting, landing, and keeping clients from author, brand builder, and marketing strategist Felicia Sullivan.

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