When our two young adult children were kids, my husband used to say to them, “When you grow up, you can do anything you want. But being poor sucks.”
If you find yourself constantly going through “feast or famine” cycles with your freelancing career or always wishing you were making more money, perhaps you can relate.
Sometimes it’s worth the sacrifice to be temporarily “poor” if you’ve got a vision of where you want to be and are making strides to get there. And it’s often a lot easier if you haven’t already gotten used to a certain lifestyle only to have it jerked away from you.
Just a few observations I’ve made over the years, and based on my own experiences. When I graduated college in the middle of a major recession back in the 1980s–after funding the majority of my tuition and room and board via loans and part-time jobs (like working at a dry cleaners, doing telemarketing, and delivering pizza)–it was tough at first.
I moved home with my parents for less than a month, and worked as a cocktail waitress at the local Chi-Chi’s Mexican joint. Then I landed a job at a small research firm in Washington, DC… making a whopping $14,500 a year.
I got a musty old 2 bedroom apartment in the city (each morning when I went into the kitchen and turned on the lights, the cockroaches would scatter), and found a roommate to split expenses. It took half of my take-home to barely cover my share of the rent, so there wasn’t much left over.
Most days, one of my male coworkers would treat me to lunch at one of the many ethnic Adams Morgans restaurants nearby, and that would be my one main meal of the day (I pretty much always skipped breakfast because, well, cockroaches. After seeing them, I lost my appetite.)
When I’d get home after work, I’d open up the fridge and typically the only two items in there would be a 4-liter box of cheap Chablis and a wheel of Brie.
Then my roommate would get home and we’d sip our wine and eat our fancy cheese and feel like, “Yes, we are living the life!”
Being poor didn’t suck that much…but I was young and hopeful. I didn’t need a whole lot back then. (It also could be that I’m romanticizing it a bit since it was so long ago… and I’ve been reading “Just Kids” by Patti Smith about her poverty-stricken, coming-of-age time with Robert Mapplethorpe as an artist and musician in New York City during the 60s and 70s).
And I while I grew up reasonably comfortably in a solidly middle- to upper-middle-class home, nothing was just handed to me. I worked from the time I was 16 (babysitting and doing other odd jobs before that), my first job being at a Wendy’s fast food restaurant clearing off tables.
We didn’t take fancy vacations growing up (long car rides and stays at Holiday Inns were more like it). My parents always drove used cars, or bought new cars that they drove for 10 or 12 years to the point that as a preteen I found it embarrassing to be seen in them.
Getting money to buy new clothes when I was a teenager was always a fight. I remember purposely putting on a pair of my worse, most beat-up sneakers in order to convince my dad to give me money to buy new shoes (it worked). I also remember selling my old clothes to one of my best friends (she’s never let me forget it).
Meanwhile, my father taught me that you should always save 10% of your salary…which turned out to be a great lesson that decades later I’m incredibly grateful that I paid attention to.
So what does all of this have to do with freelance copywriting, growing your own business, or moving up the ladder in your marketing career?
If you want to be successful (whatever your definition of “success” is), having to struggle a bit early on is almost essential to creating that drive or motivation you need in order to move forward.
It might be painful at times, but it’s what helps you find out who you are, figure out what you’re really good at, and discover what comes more easily to you. It may take you down one path, only for you to discover another that’s a better fit.
Years ago I read the book, “Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow”… and it made the point that we tend to gravitate towards things we’re naturally good at. We tend to enjoy actually doing the things we’re good at (and not so much the things that are a constant struggle or that we want to avoid). And when we do work that we’re naturally good at, we’re far more likely to do it well… and be rewarded handsomely for it.
I’ve been seeing a lot of emails in my inbox talking about ways to better handle your money or how to earn more. It seems that a lot of people strive to hit that magical six-figure, $100k mark.
When I left my marketing position at Phillips Publishing back in 1998, my salary was already $100k a year. The first year after that my income increased by more than 50%. And more than 20 years later, I’ve never had a year where I didn’t make at least six figures (and much more than I did that first year or two).
So I thought I’d pass along a few of my best tips for getting to the point that you can stop worrying about money (because frankly, while there’s much more to life, “being poor sucks”)…
- When you’re just starting out as a freelancer, leverage your past experience and contacts to the max. Let everyone know what you’re doing now and see if they will refer you. Start out in whatever niche you already know and then use that to move into your “dream” niche later. When I first started freelancing, I leveraged my Phillips Publishing contacts and relied on mostly referrals from former co-workers and others.
- Get as much practice as you can writing for money right from the start. You may need to do some “spec” work to get samples, but always tie it to a potential payout if your copy produces results. Working on a wide variety of projects will expedite your learning process while helping you bring in stable income and cover your bills. My first year or two of freelancing, I wrote a lot of supplement copy since I had that background from launching and running Healthy Directions, but I took on everything from non-profit fundraising for a museum to “space bags” for an infomercial agency to accounting software.
- If you want to earn more, give yourself a raise. If a client is happy with your work, look for opportunities to charge more. Practice saying what you need to say to them until you feel comfortable saying it. Coming up on the start of a new year is always a good time to say “my rates are going up”, but you don’t have to wait. You can do this now… especially if you’re feeling like you’re charging too little. Most clients (the right ones) will respect you more when you stand up for yourself and charge what you’re worth.
- Start paying yourself first when you begin bringing in more money than you need for your cockroach-infested apartment, box of Chablis, and wheel of Brie (or whatever expenses and commitments you have–they are likely far more than mine were as a carefree 22-year-old). I’m so grateful that when I started my second job less than a year after the initial low-paying one in DC, someone explained to me how my net pay after contributing to the company 401k plan would barely change due to it lowering my taxable income… plus I could get the “free money” company match. When I moved on to my next job at Phillips Publishing 7 years later when I was on the cusp of turning 30, I had already built a healthy 5-figure balance which I rolled over and kept contributing to for years. And I barely noticed the difference in my net pay all that time. Start young, invest regularly (let “dollar cost averaging” work for you), don’t try to time the market (I stay fully invested during the massive 2008 market crash and bounced back stronger), and take advantage of tax-deferred investment vehicles–since right off the top they could save you 30% or more in taxes, so it’s like getting a 30% return from that alone. It’s a much surer thing than constantly chasing the “fast buck” that too often lands you in trouble.
- Invest regularly in your training and network. I know from my own personal experience as well as that of other copywriters I know or have mentored that getting a mentor or attending a live event or joining a mastermind group can all have a huge impact on boosting your income and achieving greater income stability. Just like the old saying, sometimes you’ve got to spend money to make money. But do your homework first and make sure it’s a good investment that you’re making.
- Don’t live beyond your means when you do start “making it”. I’ll never forget a conversation with a top, household-name copywriter a few decades ago when he talked about getting his first few royalty-paying controls, tripling his income, only to have it drop in half when one of them stopped mailing. There can be huge peaks and valleys even once you’ve hit six figures and beyond. A lot of things are unpredictable and you have no control over them. So that six-figure royalty income one year could drop to near zero the next. Yes, you can treat yo’ self to a nice new car or vacation, but be wary of getting hooked into big financial commitments (like a huge mortgage) that keep you trapped into HAVING to make a certain amount of money. You want to have the financial freedom and leverage to say “no” to bad clients, or working 50 or 80 hours a week.. And there will be times when you need or want to step back or slow down (i.e., having a baby or dealing with a family illness). So don’t overstretch yourself as soon as you start to “make it” or get that first big win.
- Stop comparing yourself to everyone else. It’s easy to get discouraged when you’re constantly barraged by social media and emails where everyone’s talking about how they’re “killing” it or throwing around top-line revenue numbers of how much they’re making (without telling you their actual bottom line after expenses). The truth is, some part of how well you do is simply due to luck: being in the right place at the right time. Making that chance connection. Joining a company at the right time (like I did when I went to Phillips Publishing). But a much bigger part of it is about finding yourself… figuring out what you do best… and then doing it as well as you possibly can while always striving to get better. Everyone comes from different situations and has different challenges to deal with. If you find yourself getting discouraged instead of inspired, then it’s time to tune this kind of stuff out and stop comparing yourself. Look at where you are now and what progress you’re making, since that’s what’s important and relevant to you.
- If you’re really struggling to, say, be a copywriter, figure out why and be honest with yourself. Figure out where you need to improve and address it (improve your English language skills, hire an editor or proofer, actually go through all those courses and books, and do so multiple times until it sticks and the writing becomes second nature). Writing is harder at first, and can still be hard to do even after years of experience. But if it’s just not coming naturally to you to do well, even after putting all the work in, maybe you’re meant to do something else. There are plenty of things you can pivot into if you’re interested in direct response or digital marketing. I’ve known copywriters who’ve become quiz funnel specialists, Google and Facebook ad buying experts, email deliverability consultants, you name it… your marketing knowledge, project management skills, or other strengths may be a huge asset to you in other related fields, and not copywriting.
That’s all I’ve got for you today. I’m planning to put my head down the next week or so and finally finish putting together my new Research course… which is going to give you the tools and framework to really catapult your copy and promo success to the next level (and make it easier and faster to create these successful promos). So you may not be hearing from me as much the next week or two.
I’m also finishing up work on my new website and branding… so stay tuned for that, I can’t wait to share it with you! Here’s a sneak peek of one of the shots I’ll be using from a photo shoot I did in Brooklyn a few months ago…
P.S. I’m going to speaking at the upcoming Copy Accelerator live event in Tampa Florida on a copy panel with Kevin Rogers and Marcella Allison, and I can’t wait. I’d LOVE to see some Copy Insiders in the house, plus I can attest (having attended some of their past events), the connections AND learning make this one of the most valuable events I know of for copywriters and offer owners alike. You can find out more and grab your ticket here (this isn’t an affiliate link, I’m just passing this info along).
You’ll get the most out of it if you’re able to attend the live event, but there’s a virtual option also that I’m sure will be hugely valuable. Be sure to check it out as these kinds of opportunities are few and far-between these days…and there will be some other great people to learn from as well (it’s hosted by Justin Goff and Stefan Georgi, after all), including evil marketing genius Alen Sultanic, Traffic & Funnels co-founder Chris Evans, Patriots Health Alliance founder Allen Baler, and others.