Things I do not take as payment: Credit cards, check cards, and promises.
I used to operate on an honor system. You scratch my back I scratch yours. One hand washes the other. Quid pro quo. It felt good knowing that if I didn’t have cash, my friends would help me out if I needed it as long as it was understood that I owed them in the future. This could be in the form of money down the road, helping out with yardwork, or taking the blame for something if it’s that big of a favor. I always delivered on my promises owed.
It worked the other way, too. I was one of the first in my group of friends to get a car and license, so for a while I was the go-to guy for rides. Need a ride at 3AM because your ride is drunk? No problem. Parents flaked out and you’re gonna be late for a concert? I got your back. I didn’t do it for the money. I get decent gas mileage and had a lot of spare time, so I figured if I could help a friend and get $5 or a couple tacos for my time, it’s worth it.
This changed in 12th grade. I won’t name names, but one of my friends at the time was kicked out of her house and needed rides to school in the morning. I did it because I felt bad for her, and she said it would only be a week or so. I did this almost daily for a month, getting up half an hour early to help her out. After the first week, I asked if she could throw $10 my way for gas, and she said she would give me $50 when she had the money.
One day I had barely enough gas to get myself to school and no money, so I called her and tried to apologize. She lost her shit at me and never spoke to me again.
Flash forward a year. Another friend needs rides, and again I rise to the task. I pick her up from work a few times, bring her to various events, and cover for her in other ways I won’t detail here. Again I was strung along with promises to be paid. Let me reiterate that I don’t always expect cash. I’ve worked for home-cooked meals, help with welding, and things as little as a hookah session.
I didn’t see any of that. I think once I got $5 and a promise that there was more to come. That promise is still taking up space on my shelf. Knowing she wasn’t going to be able (or willing) to pay off everything she promised in any form, I asked if she would settle for dinner at a local seafood place. She said yes, and I let it sit for a while. And so it sat, and sits, and will sit forever.
The best part is, I was actually going to pay for both meals myself knowing she’d appreciate it.
Go get a snack or take a bathroom break and reflect on that for a bit. This’ll be a longer post.
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It’s not just people I know personally that have done this. I recently posted about a web design job I was taking for some cash on the side. Being my first job outside of the family, I was excited and ready to do it right. I dropped all my bad coding habits, conformed to strict HTML5 standards,
crossed my i’s and dotted my t’s dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s. It was a beautiful site, and the client hadn’t really even specified anything. I did this all out of passion for the job.
When it came time to decide on the scope and a price, it turned out that neither myself nor my client had any clue what a good number was. We both told the other to just toss out a number and we’ll agree on something. After some research and asking around, I found that someone with my experience doing this particular job should expect about $750. I thought that was a bit high, so I dropped it to $500 and made that offer.
That was twice what he wanted to pay.
Alright, I can work with this. Didn’t wanna lose my first client. I dropped some of the more advanced features and we worked out a deal for $250. All in all it was pretty good on both ends, until it came time to sign an agreement. I drafted up a contract based on a few templates I found online, trying to cover both our asses and do so in plain English. He appreciated the fact that it was easy to understand, but didn’t like some of my provisions (time table for completion, added fees for extra services, legalese). As bad a move this was, we both decided to continue without a contract.
I worked out the 90% that I could do on my own and waited for him to supply his thoughts on the site so far, along with text and graphics. At first things went smooth. We would email back and forth 3 times in a day with little tweaks and big changes. Then the time between emails stretched out to a few days, then a week. I’d ask for page text and have to ask again a few days later. Logos and opinions alike would take twice as long as they should to show up.
At one point I thought he had died or something.
Now don’t get me wrong. He’s a really busy guy. But part of working without a contract was the understanding that the respect was mutual, and both people had things they needed to do. I can’t help but feel that I was (and am, as of this writing) viewed as a back-burner issue, when in fact this job (which I agreed to do for a third of what I originally was told to expect) is a big part of my income right now.
Another promise, another letdown.
Go get a drink, almost done here.
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Alright, let’s wrap this up.
The underlying issue here is that, for the longest time, I worked on promises. This works well enough when you can trust everyone involved, but even in that case there are external variables that come into play and mess things up. The simple truth is that in this day and age, a promise is worth less than the air (or in the case of an email, the bytes) used to convey it.
So how do I plan to fix this?
First off, so you don’t all think I’m a cynical asshole*, there are some people I can trust with a promise. One of them is my good friend Brad. He’s a man of his word and if he says he will do something, it will be done.
Second, in terms of not falling into this trap again, I’m going to have to shed off a bit of my “wanna help everyone” shell and simply tell some people no if they cannot pay me upfront or provide really good collateral.
Last, and this will be hardest, I am going to have to get tough on people who don’t pay up. I hate to sound like a mobster, but if you aren’t forward with people you will get stepped on. I have the footsteps to prove it. This means outright refusing to do little favors until past dues have been paid.
So yea, gonna add this as another tally in my “Life Lessons” category and hope I can remember it in the future.
*I really am a cynical asshole, but I try to hide it