Money As a Circle: Working Class Money Lessons

By Lex Schroeder

When you grow up seeing people underpaid for their valuable work—in my case, both of my parents and many members of my community in a small town in Maine—and know that so many people, especially women and especially women of color, are hurting because they are severely underpaid for their work, it’s hard to go to bat for yourself. At least it is for me. 

On some fundamental level, some small part of me still doesn’t want to get paid if I know other people are hurting. I think this is because I understand myself as part of a whole community, and I want my whole community to be well and taken care of. I’m proud of the fact that this is a value of mine, and I know where it comes from, but as a freelancer, I’ve had to find a creative way to work with it. (This is why when I’m not doing editorial development work, I try to create mechanisms for taking care of the whole community by rethinking business design from a feminist perspective).

“I understand myself as part of a whole community, and I want my whole community to be well and taken care of.”

Along these lines, the biggest shift for me as a business owner has been coming to understand that the more I can support myself, the more I can support others. I decided to become a freelance writer/editor and consultant for many reasons, but I also did it just to learn how to advocate for myself. Being freelance reminds me that change is happening all the time, and I can navigate that change. I can support myself because I’m good at my job, I ask excellent questions and see many possibilities, and I work hard for my clients. These things don’t change even though my work is always changing.

On the more practical side of things, as for pricing out projects and retainer contracts, I try to keep in mind three things:

“Ask for what you need” – I came up in dialogue and facilitation circles where I heard brilliant minds in the participatory leadership community routinely ask people to, “Ask for what you need, Offer what you can.” It’s a beautiful idea that just keeps me human and feeling connected to my community/the world. So in contract negotiations, when I feel myself want to erase myself or toss aside my own needs, I remind myself, “Ask for what you need.” And it’s usually pretty simple. I need to make a solid day rate (even if I give discounts, which I do, to women-led firms and nonprofits), and I need to set a price that accounts for taxes, travel expenses, and other work-related expenses. It’s a bit annoying, but asking for what I need often means telling a client, “No, I don’t bill hourly. I have a day rate or I’ll work with you for a set number of days per month on a retainer, and here’s why…” My work requires heads-down think time and writing time, and billing hourly just doesn’t serve the work well. When I am clear about this with clients, my clients trust me and we find a way to work together that respects everyone’s time.

“Lead with the work” – A mentor and colleague of mine, John Shook, taught me this during my years at The Lean Enterprise Institute. When the work is out front, when you’re running experiments and focusing on the work itself, not the anxiety around the work or the political relationships around the work, then everything becomes easier. In other words, I do fine if I remember that my job is to put pen to paper for my clients, making their good work visible to the world, and to build beautiful communication and knowledge management strategies. The sooner I jump into the work, even if it’s just sketching out a proposal and being in the creativity of this process, the easier it is for the client to see my value. I don’t recommend “leading with the work” by doing too much unpaid work upfront, but I do recommend doing some upfront work to show your client how you think and operate in the earliest stages of a project proposal or contract negotiation. 

“The more I can support myself, the more I can support others.”

Money is personal, and it’s not personal – Everyone has dozens of opportunities and constraints they’re working with and around at all times that other people simply cannot see. If someone can’t pay you what you ask for, that’s not on you. Only your client knows their own budget and constraints. You need to still ask for what you’re worth and what you need. It’s just not personal if they say no to you. The good news is, while a potential client may surprise you by saying “no” when you are expecting a “yes”, they may also surprise you with a “yes and…” I have learned to put myself out there because the world is fundamentally open in all directions. Good and bad business surprises happen all the time. Or as my auntie says, “The tide goes in, the tide goes out.” There’s more good working class wisdom from Maine for you!

Lex Schroeder is the Co-Founder of Feminists at Work and co-producer of the Entrepreneurial Feminist Forum. A writer/editor and strategic communications consultant with deep roots in systems thinking, complexity science, and participatory leadership, she works frequently with Changemaker Strategies.

Editor’s Letter: A More Meaningful Way Of Talking About Work

There’s an adage that Americans begin conversations by asking what you do for a living, while people from other, presumably more sophisticated countries (France, Italy, even my home country of Australia, according to a recent article by New York Times columnist Bari Weiss) ask you where your family’s from, where you like to go on vacation, or your favorite condiment to add to your avocado toast.

This tendency, we are supposed to think, is a symptom of a lack of imagination. To speak first about work is to reduce a person to their economic status, to say that what we do to earn a living is more important than what we do for leisure.

And to some degree, I get it. I too hate being asked “what I do” - as a self-employed person juggling multiple roles and projects, I lack the easy shorthand of a title and job description that clearly and quickly answers the question.

But I LOVE talking about work. More, perhaps, than anything else.

Talking about work isn’t inherently unimaginative or superficial. At their best, conversations about work can be a form of rich interpersonal engagement, a way of asking someone: What do you care about? What are you doing to make the world better, more beautiful, or more interesting? What are you finding difficult about making that happen? How are you working through those challenges? And what are you learning about yourself and others in the process?

These are the conversations that have formed the foundations of many of my closest friendships, and they are the types of questions that form the basis of every Powerbitches event: be it a group conversation about money, an intimate dinner with a leading artist and musician, or an evening spent brainstorming our way through the challenges our members are facing in the projects they’re working on.

These conversations aren’t just more interesting than the standard “what do you do” conversation. They also build a greater depth of connection and understanding. So, how do we have more of them?

One answer is to get more specific. To go beyond the easy shorthand of the one- or two-word answer (a relief for people like me, who don’t have one) to explain what we actually do, and to be curious enough to encourage others to do the same. Another is to be more expansive in our definition of what work is - “I’m a designer/lawyer/babysitter, but what I’m really excited about is...”

Finally, we can move beyond the “what” of our work to the “why.” Why do you do what you do? What contribution do you want to make? And if your current job isn’t the best vehicle through which to make that contribution, where else could you make it?

Talking about work doesn’t have to be meaningless small talk. It can be the basis of some of the most meaningful and exciting conversations we have.