My relationship with money changed when I stopped working for jerks

By: Sinead Mulhern on November 13, 2019
Article image

I’m in the boardroom and my publisher’s surly expression tells me that this meeting won’t go well. When he’s feeling defensive, he has the personality of a territorial German shepherd behind an iron gate. Today, he’s mad because… wait for it… the listicle I’ve written, “X Weird Things About Y”, isn’t... weird enough and I’ve asked for more direction. I keep a neutral expression but really, I want to meet him where he is — outrage-wise — as he actually berates me about a listicle. “Number four: Not weird. Number six: Why would you even think that’s weird?! Number eight: Not weird at all!” He finishes the meeting with: “You don’t understand the word weird!” I don’t point out that as a native English speaker, I do in fact understand definitions of simple words and that this meeting has been, by far, the weirdest of my professional life so far. 

After a string of truly egregious workplace incidents, this meeting was just a funny anecdote I told to entertain my friends. Truly though, that workplace was toxic and as anyone with that shared experience knows, as time goes on, bad workplace energy drags on mental health. On top of poor management and communication styles that often involved gossiping about, shouting at or talking down to employees, the wildly out-of-balance male-to-female ratio had always given me a bad feeling. By the end of the month when I received my paycheque, it rarely felt worth it. I was already making entry-level bucks but as far as I can see, putting up with bullshit went unpaid. 

Eventually, I left. I decided to take a crack at the freelance life because really, I had a lot to leave behind, but not much to actually lose. I traded jerk bosses for a life down south where my reimagined take on the 9-5 was entirely within my control. The early stages confirmed what everyone told me about freelance work: you make next to nothing when you start out. I pitched stories to editors who would never respond. I applied to part-time remote gigs and never heard back. These hours I worked went unpaid and I thought many times how my time would have been better spent had I just gone to see the tourist sights. 

Surviving as a newly-minted freelancer

Truthfully, in the first months, I whittled my salary down to almost nothing, thankful for those clients who I brought with me from day one. I barely made $500 during one of my worst months. I reassured myself that things would get better though — I was adamant to make that happen. Besides, I had planned ahead and saved up for the inevitable: I was far from broke and too stubborn to take the gamble on a new job. 

As freelance goes, things did get better. I pitched story ideas until I formed relationships with new editors and then I pitched again. I stopped perusing job boards whose posts had been fruitless and learned instead how to network virtually through Facebook. I reminded my friends and contacts that I was available and assignments and gigs came in. I wasn’t relieved yet but I was starting to be. 

By the end of the month when I received my paycheque, it rarely felt worth it

Things didn’t even stabilize before I got my first bad client. This person had the red flags which, had I brazenly honoured my personal values as I did by the time I left my job, would have been dealbreakers… yet I fell into old ways of passive acceptance. She talked me into lowering my rate, was late to pay my invoices and later claimed she’d only pay once my articles had hit a certain number of pageviews (something that hadn’t been in the agreement, nor did I have the means to track or verify). I was five months into freelancing full-time and couldn’t afford to lose a client, but I knew I had to walk. So I did. 

Financially speaking, the holes left by dumping that client weren’t gaping ones and I was right to cut those ties. I quit a full-time job in a shaky industry in favour of the hodge-podge, DIY freelance life that at times feels like I’m sewing together an ill-matched patchwork quilt. Looking back on the past year and a half though, I see now that my relationship with money has changed. For the better. What I’ve learned about the dollars in my bank account has been an invaluable lesson.

Through the ups and downs of going at it alone, one thing about my job departure stands out: the absence of money in the beginning stages — as discouraging and anxiety-inducing as it was — was nothing compared to the burden of working in a dysfunctional atmosphere every day, all day. 

Happiness at work is priceless

For me, there is no rate that can justify a disrespectful working relationship. I’d rather earn a lower dollar value and adjust my life accordingly … as I did last year. I now have a healthy stable of freelance clients and I actually like every single one of them. Working for and collaborating with people who appreciate my work and whose energy is uplifting just makes for a better work day. It’s now one of my core values to accept no less. 

Having made this vow to myself, the paycheques that come in are ones that I feel great about and am motivated to continue to earn. In the past, when I received my monthly lump sum, I wondered how much of my effort contributed to the bottom line of someone who so openly talked down to the team. It didn’t feel like enough, it didn’t feel good. It also led to me spending money carelessly. I’m not talking about blowing it over a weekend — more justifying over-priced dinners in a “Meh, tough week” kind of way.

Working for and collaborating with people who appreciate my work and whose energy is uplifting just makes for a better work day 

These days, I live a life that I can afford. I feel positive paying for that lifestyle knowing that it came after a period of learning how to take career and money matters into my own hands. In the past, I may have bought an extra blouse during a lunch break or pints of expensive beer on a Friday night (because retail therapy is so real and sadly, “treat yoself!” makes swiping credit cards way too easy when you hate your job). I hope I get at least a few head nods when I say that your happiness at work directly impacts how you feel about your money.  

Now, if I splurge on something, there’s a much different narrative going on internally. Like recently, for instance, when I used most of a recent story fee to buy a Patagonia hiking jacket to properly outfit myself as I do one of my favourite activities. Shelling out $300 came not via a lazy shoulder shrug and an apathetic attitude but rather after a ton of research backed by inner dialogue that says something like: “You’re working hard for things you need and you really do deserve this one.”  

Around the time I pitched this story, I was having one of those times when the assignments were rolling in. (My early 2018 self would have breathed a sigh of relief.) They weren’t glamorous pieces but that wasn’t the point: the point was that I had proof that freelancing will continue to be a real, feasible option for me. The point is that I have regular clients whose businesses I want to contribute to. I realized that by Thursday afternoon, I had earned double the weekly salary that I had in the city and the same thing would happen the next week. More importantly, I’m in a place where money isn’t even the biggest win. How weird is that?