Is it wrong to admit how much you earn?
This week I did just that...and it raised all sorts of complicated feelings.
I was 23 the first time I told someone my salary. And it felt like a mistake the moment the numbers left my mouth. I was a couple of years out of university and had finally managed to get a foot on the precarious ladder that is the world of magazine journalism. Twenty-one thousand pounds a year was my salary as the features assistant on Woman & Home magazine. Not a huge amount, granted. But a perfectly fair wage for someone just starting out.
The young woman I disclosed this to worked on a far more glamorous magazine than me- a big, glossy fashion magazine, no less. She wore beautiful clothes, had expensive-looking hair and moved around the party we both found ourselves at, with all the confidence of someone unperturbed by money woes. I can’t quite remember how or why we talked about money. I only know that I disclosed my salary and she did not. Instead she looked at me with the sort of expression reserved for the broken hearted.
Knowing what I now know about salaries on certain magazines back in the early 2000s, my guess is the young woman in question was earning horribly less than I was, for doing a very similar job. And I felt absolutely dreadful for having opened my mouth.
For years after that I rarely, if ever, discussed money. Which seemed to be the thing to do, since no one else discussed it either. When you applied for a new job you simply took a stab in the dark as to what you should be paid. (I basically adopted the baseless strategy that as long as I was being offered at least £1000 more for every promotion I got, then I was doing okay.)
This week I posted on my Instagram account how much I was earning from this very Substack. That number is almost $100,000. It has taken almost two years to hit that number, with much hard work and lots of slightly mortifying hustling. I do not assume everyone who starts a Substack will make this. But the intention had been to show what was possible. I spend a good portion of every weekend writing these columns. I do not mind because I am being paid a handsome wage by the very people who enjoy it. It’s a wonderful trade between writer and reader; one I have certainly never experienced before. And one I wanted other creatives to be aware of.
But when I revealed exactly how much I was making (with all the attendant statistics behind that sum) I felt deeply conflicted. Though there were many who relished knowing what another writer was earning, there were some for whom it may have felt crass. In fact, a close friend reached out to me and asked: Are you sure you want to be sharing this stuff? Because the optics might not sit well with everyone.’
What to do? To take down what I had just revealed and thus negate the very act of being transparent about earnings. Or to leave it up and live with the shame of feeling like a complete braggart. It’s tricky. Very tricky…
The point is I have been thinking about money all weekend and why we still feel queasy about talking through such things. We compare the state of our relationships without shame. We feel completely at ease measuring up one another’s bodies; and we think nothing of disclosing intimate details about our health and our sex lives. But money? Now that’s a step too far.
I think, no I am not sure, that if you live in an aggressively capitalistic world such as many of us reading this do, it’s easy to index human worth against financial earnings. Though everyone knows it’s crazy to do such a thing, many of us do it all the same. Who has not had their entire day derailed after finding out a peer earns significantly more for doing a near identical job? Sure, the sting comes from the seeming unjustness of it all, but the real pain comes from believing this is an inditement of the value society puts against you and your talent.
You see when you open up the conversation around money, you also open up a whole debate about freedom; security, status and, sadly, power. Money after all is never just money. It is so much more. Talk about how much or how little of it you have and people, quite rightly, get uncomfortable.
Throughout my life I have been in situations where I have had more money than others, and I have had less. And let me tell you, it is far easier to talk about money when you have more if it. I have happily disclosed salaries to close friends when I am doing okay and think it might be helpful if they are about to embark on salary negotiations of their own. Of course it feels slightly sick-inducing in the moment, but I have always found the context of such conversations vital to how the message is received. For example, I have lost count of the number of amazing women who have shared intimate financial details with me as I have negotiated for better pay throughout my career. I have never thought them gauche, only helpful.
But for a while I was the lowest paid editor in my entire company. By some way. When I accepted the job as editor-in-chief of Women’s Health magazine I was paid £58,000 a year. Now that’s a lot of money for some, but for an editor, it was a very low offer. Half of what many editors at that time were earning in fact. I took it because here was an opportunity, and opportunities don’t always come dressed in fine clothes. Plus, the truth was I didn’t feel hard done by because the company who gave me the job plucked me from near obscurity- and sometimes that’s how it works. But still, I didn’t dare tell a soul for fear of being judged. Silence became my protective armour.
When I moved down from Manchester to take up a place at a London university, my parents made it clear that I would need to make money in order to support myself. I therefore got a job. Every Saturday and Sunday, whilst new friends were out partying and cementing their friendships, I would be up at 8am helping to open the Hampstead High Street branch of French Connection. I loved that job, but it was a necessity. When peers asked why I worked every weekend I lied and told them I just loved fashion. (Though that wasn’t a complete lie…). The real truth was, I needed the money. Plus access to lots of lovely free clothes, since you were allowed to choose two uniforms each season to wear to work. I however wore my uniform to every class and every social get-together I could. My French connection camel crew neck jumper was the hardest working piece of clothing I have ever owned. It was also one of the most crucial, since it helped me appear as though I had money. You see, because I dressed well and had watched certain behaviours of the rich - Hampstead High Street is one of the most affluent neighbourhoods in London, my company was enjoyed by students who came from far more moneyed backgrounds than mine. These were kids who talked about boarding school backgrounds, houses that had ‘land’ rather than gardens and who called their parents by their first names as opposed to mum or dad, which seemed so devastatingly aristocratic (and thus powerful) to me. There was nothing wrong with that by the way, it was just money was communicated through things other than cold hard conversations about cash. The messaging seemed to be that if you had money, you didn’t talk about money.
Though I never ran with this set -I felt far too much of a fraud, I met them again when I entered magazines. Once upon a time magazines were a place where the rich congregated. A deeply networked industry that relied upon a lot of unpaid labour, often it was only the very well to-do who could afford to slog it out for three years in a fashion cupboard and be paid in designer shoes. Money wasn’t talked about because A: you never knew which interns were being paid and which were not. For the record I was always paid for internships but I know many who were not. B: You were never quite sure who came ‘from money’ and who did not, since most people in magazines presented as well to-do. (Sample sales, brands gifting journalists clothing, beauty salons who gave certain writers 100 per cent discounts cards, meant everyone looked moneyed). C: Magazines are a world built on aspiration and status. Disclose too much about money and you reveal your place in the mad hierarchy of things.
And so for years I never heard anyone talk about their finances.
But when we stop talking about money, we also risk an opportunity to help others understand their value. I learned this a few years back when I almost took a job in America. That is until I turned to an older editor who had worked in the States some years previous. Not only was the offer far below the market value, she told me. It was far below my value. What’s more, accepting such a low offer would open the gates for all the others who followed me to expect the same. I declined the job.
Of course I realise this piece should ideally end with some hope. For me, hope would look like society putting more value on the deeds one does as opposed to how much one earns, but I can’t express a whole utopian realignment of society in a 1400 word column. So perhaps the best I can offer is this: be as transparent as you can. Do it for the thrill of helping someone else understand how it all works behind the scenes. Do it so that others can figure out their value. Be transparent about what it took to get there too. But most of all, be clear that what you earn now, what you earned yesterday and what you’ll earn tomorrow ultimately has zero bearing on your personal value. Sharing the stuff that makes you feel uncomfortable in order to help others feel more comfortable is where your real worth will hopefully shine through.
There is SO much to discuss here. Is this just a very UK perspective? Have you ever shared your salary? Should you? Would you? As ever let’s keep the conversation going below…