I’ve always felt chronically underpaid. With a master’s degree in history and a passion for social media marketing, I applied for 347 jobs in a single year before I got my first “real” job (yes, I kept a list)—working four part-time jobs at once during that time—and my first-ever salary clocked in at a whopping $30,000. I thought I’d struck gold, and I foolishly believed that my salary was going to be enough to pay for rent in Nashville, living expenses, insurance, my phone bill, building a savings, and the massive chunk of student debt I had after earning two degrees.
After my dream job turned out to be a nightmare, however, I started to get desperate. I took a part-time paid internship at a publishing company hoping to turn it into a full-time position and—surprisingly—it worked. A month later, the owner of the company pulled me into his office and asked me if I wanted a job taking over as the director of marketing.
Obviously, I said yes. I went from intern to leading a department overnight, and I happily accepted the $35,000 salary—completely unaware that it wasn’t anywhere near the industry standard—and clung to the promise of a raise within six months. Six months later, armed with countless spreadsheets and a report on everything I’d accomplished on behalf of the company, I walked into my boss’ office and asked for my promised raise.
And he laughed at me.
Even though I quit the job soon after, I’ll never forget that moment or the way it impacted my career (and more importantly, my salary growth) from that point on. Even though I knew I should negotiate, I found myself wavering in every conversation about money for years to follow. At my next job, when I discovered that my predecessor had been paid a whopping $25,000 more than I was, I accepted it—telling myself that they’d get me up there eventually—but after two years spent trying to prove myself worthy, I was told to “be grateful” for the amount I was given.
Eventually, I started believing that I would never break past $50,000. It was too much—too high to achieve—and despite ten years of experience, two director-level positions, speaking gigs, and a slew of clients who were obsessed with my work, that belief turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. No matter what I did, no matter how many books or courses or life coaching sessions I took, the line didn’t budge. And my self-worth tanked.
I’d always believed that something was better than nothing, so I found myself accepting every opportunity that came my way. A freelance writing gig that barely paid above minimum wage? I’ll take it. A $3,000 class that promised to teach me how to build a successful online business? I’ll buy it. An unpaid speaking gig? I’ll do it. I wrote and published my first novel. I launched a podcast. I created digital products. I sold an online course. I hustled and created and pushed myself to do more, but no matter how much of myself I gave away I felt like I couldn’t get anything in return.
I barely made $10,000 during my first year of self-employment.
Eventually, I knew something had to give. Work felt like I was attempting to lift a 500-pound weight, and—even though it wasn’t budging—I was constantly exhausted from the effort. Instead of letting myself continue to feel like a failure while half-heartedly juggling everything I’d built over the past several years, I made the difficult decision to let everything drop. I was grateful and privileged enough to have a partner who kept most of our finances afloat, so I maintained my core clients and said goodbye to maintaining my podcast, my writing, my social media platforms, my course, and more. I needed time to decide whether or not I even wanted to pick those things up again, or if I was ready to admit defeat.
Barely able to function, I remember telling my therapist that I was ready to give in, but that I wasn’t sure how I could survive a desk job. Over the last three years, I’d learned to love my independence and my ability to set my own schedule, and I was terrified that the only way I could be “successful” and hit that $50k mark was if I threw myself into a 60-80 hour a week corporate job that obliterated my free time…and my happiness.
“Forget the $50k thing, that’s a separate issue,” my therapist said. “What is your time worth? Not just the time you’re working, what is your free time worth?”
“Like, hourly?” I asked.
If I was honest, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about my hourly rate. I accepted whatever was offered because I was grateful for the work, and the idea of my free time having a dollar amount next to it didn’t sit well. Why would it have an hourly rate attached to it? It’s just the time I wasn’t working. It doesn’t have worth.
Except it did. If my time had value—and even my free time had value—then that could change everything I did, and not just in my career. Later that day, I told my partner about the question and he asked if I had an answer. I laughed awkwardly and joked, “I don’t know. Seventy-five dollars an hour.”
It was more than double the amount that I was making as a freelancer, but it was a joke—it wasn’t real—so it felt safe to dream. It was just a post-therapy conversation, after all, not a quote for a potential client, so it didn’t mean anything…until I found myself watching a movie on Netflix that I didn’t even enjoy and wondered, “Is this worth $75 and hour?”
It shocked me when the answer was no.
Slowly but surely, I found myself asking that question more often than not. It shaped my decisions of how I spent my time, and I realized just how much time I was wasting on things that didn’t even bring me joy. It was like I was Marie Kondo-ing my free time, and—while sometimes the answer was a resounding yes, like when I took a much-needed break to play three hours of Animal Crossing on my Nintendo Switch—it changed the hobbies I engaged in, the people I talked to, and even my business.
I started saying no to low-paying work. I ditched the mentality that something was better than nothing and started looking for clients who could afford to pay me more. I quoted higher than I ever had, and within a month I doubled my income. Eventually, I realized that I was earning the same amount of money working part-time that I made at my first full-time job. I was ecstatic, and I even started turning away work that no longer fit my goals. Because my time had value, because I had value, the decisions I was making as an individual and as an entrepreneur started to change.
Slowly but surely, I stopped undercutting myself at every turn. Over the next few months, my business exploded. I doubled a massive proposal to a new client at the last minute—fully expecting them to negotiate for a lower rate—and was stunned when they accepted it as is. I hired an assistant, plucked up the courage to fire a client who was mistreating me, and even walked away from my lowest paying gig.
In the end, I realized that feeling underpaid was just that: a feeling. I didn’t have a $50,000 upper limit. I was my upper limit. I was the one holding myself back, I was the one consistently accepting less, and I was the one who let my imposter syndrome talk me out of tens of thousands of dollars. It was only once I decided what I was worth—and owned it—that other people could see it too.
About the Author: Jandra Sutton is a writer, entrepreneur, and founder of The Wildest Co, a creative agency specializing in content creation, branding, and marketing for busy entrepreneurs and small business owners. She’s also the host of The Wildest Podcast, a weekly personal development podcast in 10 minutes or less. You can follow her on Instagram @jandralee.