When it comes to negotiations, as a photographer (or any freelance artist, for that matter) you’ve got to master the art of not being emotionally invested in the outcome — something that is nearly impossible to do. But without it, you’ll never be able to break free of difficult clients and underpaid gigs.
What is an F-You Fund?
The “f**k you fund” isn’t something you say to your clients, or tell them that you have. It’s essentially a slush fund of money that you have in your bank account, under a mattress, in Bitcoin, or somewhere, that is enough money for you to live your life as you normally would without having to work for a predetermined period of time.
Mine is about one year worth of cash-on-hand that would allow me to maintain my current lifestyle while not getting a single commission or payment of any sort in that period of time. You can pick any amount of time, but set this money aside and don’t touch it unless you need to. This is NOT money that is tied up in retirement accounts, depreciating assets, a house, or otherwise. You might have it invested in a money market account or bonds, or something like an index fund which is not subject to crazy volatility, but the point is that it’s money that you can get at easily if needed.
Note that this is different than “f**k you money” which is basically a term for a massive amount of money that would allow you to do anything you want with no consequence. While I’m (and we probably all) are dreaming of hitting that lottery one day, let’s focus on the F-You fund first to help grow our business.
How Do I Get an F-You Fund?
I created my fund in my early-mid 20s via extreme frugality and somewhat smart decisions. I still, to this day, drive a car with a Kelly Blue Book value of roughly $4,500. It’s a 2012 Mitsubishi Lancer (not even the fast or fun version) and my insurance cost is something like $80 a month. I haven’t upgraded because new cars and leases are some of the worst financial decisions you can possibly make.
I avoided frivolous furniture purchases (insane depreciation, impossible to sell), eat at Chipotle an unhealthy amount when I must get lunch out of the house, and prefer to spend date nights in front of Netflix instead of at a high-end restaurant. I probably drink alcohol once a month or less and it has to be a very special occasion. I still share a Netflix account with my sister.
These are all decisions I’ve made consciously to help build up and support my ‘F-You fund’ because walking away from a nightmare job is infinitely more empowering than spending $150 on a night out. Feels better in the morning, too.
There are certain areas where I splurge — buying something expensive and high quality might last far, far longer than the cheap alternative — especially if it’s something my business depends on. I have $500 luggage for god’s sake, but it has flown hundreds of thousands of miles around the world with me and I’m not replacing it with inferior cheap luggage that would add up to more than I spent on the quality luggage in the first place. You can buy expensive furniture that holds resale value — there’s a huge collectors market — instead of just buying something from IKEA that you’ll toss out after a couple of years, for example.
Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.
This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.
If you can resist the temptation of lifestyle creep as your income improves, invest in quality purchases that last a lifetime, and curb the temptation to throw money away on frivolity, you will very quickly have at least 6 months of living expenses saved. It requires discipline, but so does running a successful business.
Some people are fortunate and don’t have to work so much to create their fund. Maybe they invested in Bitcoin early and have a few hundred grand lying around as a result. Maybe they got an inheritance from their great aunt Birgit. Maybe they avoided student debt and the crushing monthly payments that go along with it, or maybe they’ve been lucky enough to avoid medical bills their entire life.
Maybe it comes from a second job that they pick up on the weekends — I did this for years until I was established as a photographer. I worked weekends from 2-10pm for $17/hr editing paparazzi photos to support myself and at least pay for rent, utilities, and food instead of living gig to gig. I actually did this for an embarrassingly long time, until 2014 — that’s five years ago — until I had a massive F-You fund! There is no shame in a consistent paycheck if at the end your goals of financial independence and freelance sanity are met. If I lost a job because I was priced too high — it sucked — but it didn’t ruin me, and I didn’t have to negotiate like a dunce.
In most cases, it’s just going to come down to good old-fashioned frugality. I’m not the kind of person who makes a budget in Excel, but maybe this will help you identify leaks which are costing you way more than you think they are. I recommend websites like YouNeedABudget, Mint, or PersonalCapital to keep track.
But Why Do I Need an F-You Fund?
Because it lets you negotiate like a boss.
If you are hanging by a thread, financially speaking, with only a couple grand in your account at any one time, how can you possibly expect to not be affected by that when negotiating? Your next job could be sink or swim for you. You’ll be desperate to land any gig, including by cutting your prices to get it. The F-You fund gives you the benefit of being able to negotiate independently of the outcome.
Do you know what happens when you cut your prices? Of course you do. You become bitter and resentful during the job. You feel taken advantage of, and you’re instantly put at a disadvantage.
You don’t want to put in the full effort because you’re not getting your full rate. Your client might think, without even doing it maliciously, something like:
“I already got him down $1,000 on this shoot, I bet he’ll knock some money off on the retouching if we ask”. Give a mouse a cookie…
What about the future? Now that you’ve discounted your rate once, that client is going to expect that rate for a long time to come. Or maybe you get to have fun trying to raise your rates immediately after the first job, and they then just go with someone else because they don’t want to pay your real rate. It sucks all around.
If you have a backstop of cash on hand, it doesn’t matter if a client doesn’t want to pay your full rate (or hire you at all). You’ve got six months, a year, two years, of funds to support yourself. You can spend the time that you would have spent working for a less-valuable client searching (and hopefully finding) work from a higher paying client that respects your rates. (In this career, you only really need 5-7 great, consistent clients to be successful. Treat those clients like gold).
In fact, if you don’t negotiate, I bet that you’ll get more work in the end. Rather than spending 50 emails worth of time negotiating the nuances of a shoot’s financials, you’ll wrap things up in two emails. Would you rather spend countless emails going back and forth to squeeze an extra $500 out of a shoot, or just spend less time negotiating in the first place — and acting like a confident, successful business owner instead of someone making wishy-washy deals on shaky terms with messy contracts? Keep it simple, stupid! An F-You fund allows you to do this.
Think of it Like Poker
As any good poker player will tell you, the results of a single hand aren’t what matters. If you get outdrawn on the river by a full house over your flush with all your money in the pot, you’re not going to get mad (at least you shouldn’t) because you made the right move. You just got unlucky. Run that scenario 1,000 times and you’d be a very, very wealthy person by the end of the night. How do you know you’re making the right business and pricing decision? Well, you read my coup de grâce pricing post, right?
You can’t play poker with what’s called “scared money” — money you are afraid to lose — and you can’t negotiate in business with scared money, either.
At the end of the day, you must know that the odds are in your favor. You don’t care if you lose some gigs, because you’re making the right moves and over time you’ll win enough of the GOOD gigs to keep your sanity intact and your bank account afloat. There is a compounding effect at play here, too. Ten GREAT clients who pay your rate and don’t grief you are better than 20 mediocre clients that you picked up at discount prices because you were too afraid to bill your full rate. And in the end, you’ll have more money and a healthier business as a result.
“But I Really Want This One Amazing Job!”
Then shoot it entirely for free — entirely on your own terms. I have a policy and it goes like this:
I’ll shoot any job at my full rate, from the sexiest houses in the hills of Los Angeles to snoozefest suburban tract housing happily, as long as you pay my full rate.
If the project is really so incredible that I’d shoot it on my own for free, then I’ll shoot it on my own for free, with complete creative control. I might even pay to shoot something — assistants, props, etc — to make it look even better. I won’t be answering to anyone, and the pictures come out exactly as I want them — no bitterness on my end from someone telling me where to put the camera or how to style the scene. The pictures will be better in almost 100% of cases as a result. If anyone wants photos at the end, they can purchase a license for them.
Don’t go into business without an F-You fund. Your negotiations will improve dramatically, you’ll win more gigs, and you’ll feel like you’re in control of your business. Whether you need to pinch pennies for a couple of years, pick up some part-time work, sell a problem child, or sell a car, in the long run the frugality will pay off many times over when you’re able to get what you’re really worth. In fact, I think you’re insane to be a photographer without this backup money. If it takes you an extra year working a full-time gig to make it happen, be patient. If you need to pick up a part-time job, do so. But to live gig-to-gig is a fast-track to a long, difficult, stressful freelance career.
After all, what’s the point of a dream career if you can’t do it on your own terms? Start thinking about your fund and how it can change your power as a negotiator.
This article was originally published at Architectural Photography Almanac, a hub for architectural photographers. The site regularly features members of the architectural photography community and their outstanding work in articles and interviews, discuss business strategies, share technique and equipment knowledge, and take a critical look at the craft of architectural photography.
About the author: Mike Kelley is an architecture and interiors photographer who has photographed projects all over the world. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Kelley is a self proclaimed airplane food enthusiast and the founder of the Architectural Photography Almanac. You can find more of Kelley’s work on his website and Instagram.