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By Suze Orman
There is never a bad time to confirm you are earning the going rate for your work. And right now is an especially good time to make sure you’re not leaving money on the table, given the sharp rise in the price of basic goods and services you need to keep your household running.
Whether you’re a happy employee at an established company that delivers a robust package of benefits, or you’re part of the growing gig work force, it’s on you to take the initiative to make sure you are paid what you’re worth.
I don’t care how great your employer is, or how much you believe your manager has your back, or how grateful you are to have landed your first few gig clients. Being properly paid is not just about the money. It is a key barometer of your self-worth.
I have yet to meet anyone who would be unhappy if they earned more. But I am surprised at how many of you don’t actively work at making sure you’re paid fairly. You just accept whatever raise is offered, or you agree to whatever rate is offered for contract work. In my book, that is a sign you are putting yourself on sale. When you don’t value yourself, why would you expect anyone else to?
Some tips for becoming your own best advocate for getting paid what you’re worth.
Money is just about the last frontier in taboo topics we don’t discuss with family and friends. It is also all too often the third rail in the work place. My advice: get over it, and start the conversation. What better gauge is there than checking that your pay is in line with colleagues with similar skill and experience?
It has never been easier to research industry and employer specific salary information online, at sites such as Salary.com, Glassdoor.com and Payscale.com.
A job that comes with health insurance and a workplace retirement plan is great. But don’t fall into the trap that you’re lucky to have the benefits. Can you imagine your company being competitive if it didn’t offer them? Most employers know that is a cost of attracting and retaining talent. But some managers love to start ticking off all the great benefits the minute you bring up a raise. Politely but firmly make it clear that no amount of benefits pays the rent or mortgage, or the grocery bill.
This is not about telling your boss or hiring manager you want to make more. Honestly, what you want is irrelevant. This is all showing them you deserve to make more.
If you’re going to negotiate for higher pay at a current job, lay out the key deliverables you not only met, but exceeded. If you’re shopping around for a new job, don’t rely on a generic resume to make your case. Highlighting your experience and achievements that are most important to a prospective employer is how you negotiate not just for the job, but for the best starting salary.
A special note for new graduates: I realize the urge to get a job, and get your foot in the door is your main focus. But please be careful to not put yourself on sale by accepting the first salary offer if you know it is low. That salary is the foundation for so much. Future raises. Future negotiations when you are job hunting. And your salary plays into the company match on a workplace retirement plan, and decades from now will play a role in your Social Security benefit. It all starts with your first job. Make it a habit from the get-go to always get paid what you’re worth.
When you are negotiating a raise, I want you to frame it like this: “I want a raise of at least X%.” Or “I want a raise of at least X dollars.” The use of “at least” sets your floor for what you consider fair.
Negotiating salary for a new job is a bit different. Don’t be pressured into stating your salary expectations. Ask the hiring manager to share the range as early as possible. Once that is on the table, you can use the same “at least” language to frame your expectations. If it’s way above their initial range, either of two things can happen: they adjust to your expectations because they want you that much. Or you look for a different job. If you’ve done your work and know what the market rate is for your skill and experience, you can politely convey you are not on sale, and move on.
According to the most recent government data, the average hourly wage for private sector workers was about $26. But that was just 70% of the average total compensation a worker earned, as the value of benefits such as health insurance, paid time off, and retirement matches had an added value of $11 per hour. For government workers, non-salary benefits comprise nearly 40% of total compensation.
Do not for a minute forget that as an independent contractor, you aren’t eligible for those benefits. That makes it crucial to set your rate high enough so you can self-fund the must-haves: health insurance, retirement savings, and an emergency savings account.
Each industry has its own pay structure for independent contractors. It may be hourly, or per-project, or a retainer fee. Regardless of what structure is the norm in your field, you might consider coming up with an hourly rate that will generate enough income to 1) cover your monthly household essentials 2) pay your taxes and 3) make it possible to save for goals, such as retirement savings, and an emergency savings account.
Once you have an hourly rate, you can apply that to any job offer. If your hourly rate is $50 and a project is being pitched at $3,000 you can do the math to see if it works for you. Do you expect you can polish it off in no more than 60 hours? (60 hours x $50/hr.= $3,000).
Tax alert: If you are new to being an independent contractor you need to realize you are now 100% responsible for paying income tax on your earnings(federal, and state if applicable) as well as your Social Security and Medicare taxes. (If you previously worked as a full-time employee Social Security and Medicare taxes were the FICA deduction on your pay stub. When you are freelancing, they are referred to as “self-employment” (SE) tax.) You must make quarterly Estimated Tax payments to cover your income tax and your self-employment tax. Be sure you factor in your tax bill to your hourly rate. You can learn more at the IRS website.
To figure out your target hourly rate, tote up all your monthly expenses, including what you want to put toward savings, and what you need to set aside each month to be able to make your quarterly Estimated Tax payment to the IRS (and your state, if applicable.)
Be realistic in how many hours you divide this sum by. If you intend to work 30 hours a week, not 50, that’s going to affect your rate. If you want to take off three weeks, at 30 hours a week, that’s 90 hours you need to finance as well.
Make sure you and the client are on the same page about your deliverables. Are you expected to make revisions to your assigned work? How many reviews/revisions?
As a freelancer, time is literally money. Every extra hour spent on a fixed-rate project, is an hour of work you can’t put toward another project. This sinks so many new freelancers. If you “think” the project will take you 12 hours, and the client is so demanding it takes 18 hours, your hourly rate has taken a big hit.
There is often an odd power dynamic at play between contract workers and clients. The client often will state, “We can pay $X.” Or some version of “We have budgeted X for this.”
If you’re new to the world of self-employment you might feel the self-imposed pressure to just accept what is offered. Please resist that temptation if it is below the hourly fee you have set as your target.
The urge to put yourself on sale can be strong when you are just starting out as a self-employed contract worker. I can’t overstate enough what a costly mistake this is.
The main problem is that I never want you to undervalue your worth. But it also can be a lousy marketing decision as well. It sends a signal to potential clients that you might not be that good at what you do. Or that you intend to put in a minimal effort.
Just as with a full-time employee who has to make their case for a raise or promotion, each interaction with a potential new client requires you give a fact-based pitch of your accomplishments and capabilities. Do a great job selling your skill set and your reliability and you will never fall into the rut of putting yourself on sale.
Alliant has partnered with Suze Orman to offer a high-rate savings account and bonus for new members. Start your savings journey today!
* While the information provided is based on our understanding of current tax laws, and has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, it cannot be guaranteed. Federal tax laws are complex and subject to change. This information is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax or legal advice. We suggest that you discuss your specific situation with a qualified tax or legal advisor.
Suze Orman is the author of 10 consecutive New York Times bestsellers, a two-time Emmy award winner, and your go-to for honest answers on everything finance. She is the most recognized personal finance expert in America today and host of the Women & Money (and Everyone Smart Enough to Listen) podcast. Suze is excited to be a contributor for Money Mentor.
Suze and Alliant teamed up to help Alliant members make the most of their life by teaching them to make the most of their money. New Alliant members are also eligible for The Ultimate Opportunity Savings Account.
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